Friday, November 30, 2018

Who was Darius I the Great?

“Darius the King says: Ahuramazda, the greatest of the gods, created me, made me king, bestowed upon me this kingdom, great, possessed of good horses, possessed of good men.” 
– Darius, Palace foundation inscription

Such the manner Darius painted himself – divinely ordained giant among men. Indeed, he presided over the largest land empire in the ancient world at the zenith of its power from 522 – 486 BCE.

Early Life

Much of the details of the life of Darius came from the Greek Historian Herodotus and Darius’ inscriptions. He had one of the most recorded reign among all the Persians, but all the records must be taken with grain of salt. Herodotus had tendency of having negative views of the Persians, while Darius knew how to paint himself a good picture.

Darius was born around 550 BC, a son of Hystaspes (Vishtaspa in Old Persian) who served as a Satrap of Parthia and Rohodugune (Vadagauna). According to the Behistun Inscription, Darius and Cyrus the Great shared the same ancestor a mysterious founder of the Achaemenids – Achaemenes. Since Cyrus and Cambyses did not mentioned of Achaemenes, many suspected the existence of Achaemenes as Darius’ fabrication to legitimize his claim to the throne.

During the reign of Cambyses II, Darius served as part of the royal guards fighting in the campaigns against Egypt. In 522 BCE, a brother of Cambyses, Bardiya (Smerdis), took power gaining support through ceasing taxation and conscription for 3 years. However, Darius claimed that Cambyses had ordered the death of Bardiya during the initial phase of his invasion of Egypt and the one claiming the throne was an imposter – a Magi named Gaumata. He also painted Bardiya as a brutal ruler who took properties unjustly and ordered the death of many.

Once Darius returned to the capital of Susa, Darius plotted with 6 other nobles to depose Bardiya, namely: (1) Vidafarna (Intaphernes), (2) Utana (Otanes), (3) Gaubaruva (Gobryas), (4) Vidarna (Hydarnes), (5) Bagabuxsha (Megabyzus), and (6) Ardumanish. Darius and nobles barged into the palace and murdered Bardiya. Darius took power through cunning means in a competition with the other 6 to become King of Persia.

To secure his hold on power, he strategically used marriage to his advantage. He married 2 daughters of Cyrus the Great, namely Atossa and Artystone. He also married the daughter of the real Bardiya, Parmys and a daughter of his ally Otanes.


With confusion and infighting within the monarchy, the peripheries of the Empire took the opportunity to regain their independence. The moment of disaster within the Achaemenid dynasty brought the Empire in jeopardy.

In the Behistun Inscription, Darius enumerated the rebellions he had crushed. He boasted fighting 19 battles in the first year of his reign. He also listed the names of the rebel leaders he had vanquished. Egyptians, Babylonians, and Elamites among the frequent rebels.

Darius fought and crushed every single rebellion with some followed with reprisals. In Babylon, the failure of the rebellion led to the execution of 3,000. Darius fought in military campaigns until 521 BCE.

Expansion of the Empire

With internal rebellions destroyed, Darius focused his attention against the Persian Empire’s neighbors. In 519 BCE, he marched against the Scythians fighting successfully and executed their leader Skunkha. In 517 BCE, Darius returned to Egypt and ordered the invasion of Libya. He then turned his attention east, towards the Indus River valley. He claimed the valley for Persia and supported an exploratory expedition led by Scylax of Caryanda. In 513 BCE, Darius returned west to fight the European Scythians in the Danube River. Darius’ host pressed on, but only met desolation as the Scythians retreated and followed a scorched earth policy. This resulted to the lack of supplies forcing Darius to retreat. Nonetheless, he had the consolation of having Thrace and Macedonia as well as the islands of Lemnos and Imbros in the Aegean Sea. This latest addition made the Black Sea part of the Persian Empire’s sphere of influence.

Consolidation of the Empire

Successful in military affairs, Darius consolidated his hold in power by improving the Empire’s administration and economy. His reforms and policies brought Persia to the zenith of its power and prestige.


Darius created changes in the administrative structure of the Empire for internal security – security through efficient management. Increasing the number of satraps became the most prominent reform by him. Satraps or provinces ruled by Satraps or governors had already existed during the time of Cyrus the Great, but Darius expanded its number to 20. Darius gave power to Satraps authority over local affairs, dispensation of justice, collection of taxes and tribute, and conscription of local populace.

He strengthened domestic security by establishing an intelligence networks. He established the so-called King’s Eye to serve as his spy network. He also employed supervisors of satraps to ensure their quality management of the provinces.

He then used infrastructure to improve communication and interconnectivity of the empire to contribute in Darius’ focus on internal security. He became the famous builder King of Persia. He ordered the construction of the Royal Road that connected Sardis in Anatolia to the capital of Susa. He also ordered the construction of granaries across the empire to store supplies for the armies marching against foreign invasion or internal rebellion. It also stored supplies for the population in case of emergency such as famines.


Darius followed the policy of toleration of Cyrus the Great. It had successfully pacified many newly conquered populace. Darius wanted to follow this policy as part of keeping the people content, happy, and less likely to rebel.

Darius respected local tradition. He respected local gods. He gave offerings and sacrifices to Egyptian, Babylonians, Elamite, and even Greek gods, in particular Apollo. With Egypt as an example, Darius assumed Egyptian titles. He ordered the construction of a temple to the Egyptian god Amon and restored other temples. He codified local laws. He also supported the reestablishment of a medical school in the Temple of Sais. In case of Israelite, in 515 BCE, Darius supported the reconstruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.

Economic Prosperity

Darius understood the importance of keeping the people fed and prosperous. Under his reign, Persia had the largest economy with vast resources both necessities and luxuries under Persian hands. Trade flourished and Darius contributed in keeping it robust. In 498 BCE, he ordered the construction of the canal that connected the Nile River and the Red Sea connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea a millennium before the construction of modern Suez Canal in the 19th century. Under Darius, the Persian Empire enjoyed plenty of resources and manpower.

Cultural Development

The vast wealth of the Empire allowed Darius to patronize arts and culture. It also served to show off the power, grandiosity, and prosperity of the Persian Empire in general, and the Persian King Darius in particular.

Darius wanted to unite the Empire under the religion of Zoroastrianism. Though he made it virtually the state religion, he did not became a fanatic and persecuted other religion. Darius supported the development of the Aryan Script to replace the widely use cuneiform. The greatest cultural contribution of Darius laid in architecture.

In architecture, Darius displayed the best of Persia’s artistic skills through various palaces which also served to intimidate foreign dignitaries and locals alike showing the power that Darius held. Susa became a showpiece of Darius. He ordered its refortification and construction of a new Apadana or audience hall. He also had a new palace constructed with an inscription in its foundation detailing the material contribution of each of the Empire’s people.

Persepolis, however, greatly testified Darius’ greatness. Its sheer size and beauty dazzled people of the ancient and modern worlds. Its staggering high roofs and pillars and reliefs showing how the people of the world bowed to the Persians. Though the palace completed after the death of Darius, his successors used it awed envoys sent by neighbors and Satraps.

Greco-Persian War

The Greco-Persian War, however, became the most controversial legacy left by Darius to his successors. It began due to the growing strength of Persia in Anatolia. It later blew out to a campaign that pitted the Persian East and Greek West.

When Darius took the both sides of the Dardanelles, it effectively controlled the Black Sea trade. Greeks feared for their economic security as the much of its grain also came from the Black Sea. To weaken Persian control of region, Greek city-states of Athens and Eritrea supported rebellion in Anatolia. In 499 BCE the Ionians rebelled. It grew to a scale that the rich city of Sardis burned by rebel forces.

Darius heard the news of rebellion and the disaster in Sardis and mobilized the Persian army to crush the rebellion. Through the Royal Road the Persian army marched to battle against the rebellious Greeks. The fighting went brutal and lasted for 6 years finally ending in 493 BCE. Only then that Darius discovered the invisible hand of Athens and Eritrea in the rebellion.

With the discovery of Athenian and Eritrean support of the rebellion, Darius sent punitive expeditions against the Greek city-states. In 492, Persian forces marched into Thrace and Macedonia and faced stiff resistance. He also sent a fleet led by his son-in-law, Mardonius, but it went to disastrously when it sank off Mt. Athos.

More expeditions followed. In 490 BCE, Darius sent expeditions led by a Mede named Datis that successfully invaded the Aegean islands of Cyclades and Eretria. A Persian army finally landed in mainland Greece and faced a Greek army in the field of Marathon. The battle went wrong for the Persians, yet they sailed away from Marathon only to threaten Athens itself. This attack too failed after seeing the city ready and well-defended for a siege. Though Darius’ forces failed to invade mainland Greece, the Persian navy controlled the Aegean Sea.
They Crashed into the Persian Army
with Tremendous Force
in The Story of Greece,
told to Boys and Girls
Decline and Death

More plans had been drafted by Darius to destroy the Greeks, but it failed to proceed under him when in November 486 BCE, he passed away. Persians mourned and buried him in honor in Naqsh-e-Rostam near Persepolis. His son Xerxes took power and he continued Darius’ campaigns against the Greeks.

Darius led Persia to its peak of power. His campaigns against the Greeks, however, sowed the seed of Persia’s decline and fall.

See also:
Rise and Fall of the Persian Empire

General Reference:
“Darius I.” In The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Mehrdad Kia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016.

Pettman, Andrew. “Darius.” In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann et. al. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.


Munn-Rankin, J.M. “Darius I.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on November 1, 2018. URL: 

No comments:

Post a Comment