The king sits in profile, a slight smile on his face, as tribute-bearers from many lands offer him gifts. This is the peaceful, benevolent image that Darius I (550-486 BCE) of the Achaemenid Empire chose to have carved into the stone bas reliefs of his glorious cities.
The third king of kings of the Achaemenids in Persia, Darius I is also known as Darius the Great. Was he really the kindly pacifist portrayed at Persepolis and Susa? What do we know about Darius the Great, more than 2,500 years after he was born?
The Problem of Sources:
Unfortunately, much of what we know about Darius the I of Persia comes to us through his neighbors rather than from Persian sources. For example, in Ezra 4:6 of the Bible, Darius orders his government to pay for finishing reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Israel, as originally mandated by Cyrus the Great.
Another source is the famed Greek historian Herodotus, who unfortunately has never been famous for scrupulous accuracy. Nonetheless, he gives us accounts of Darius's accession to the throne; his wars against the Scythians; and his invasion of Ionian Greece (492-490 BCE); and his army's defeat at the Battle of Marathon.
As for sources written by the Achaemenid Persians themselves, we have only inscriptions carved into palace walls, royal tombs, and cliff face bas reliefs. Unfortunately, many of these inscriptions tend to praise the names of the Darius the Great and other kings, but do not provide any details about their lives and exploits. One exception is the bas relief at Behistun, which shows Darius the Great standing in triumph over his adversaries from Babylonia, Elam, the Scythian Empire, and other areas. The Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda blesses Darius from above.
The Behistun inscription describes Darius's rise to the throne. It also details his success in putting down the revolts that sprang up throughout the reaches of the Achaemenid Empire as Darius sought to consolidate his rule.
Although the sources leave many questions unanswered, it is a remarkably complete record considering the vast span of time between Darius the Great's reign and the present day.
Darius's Early Life:
Darius the Great was not born in to the Achaemenid royal family. Rather, his father Hystaspes was a military official and court noble, who likely served as satrap of the province of Bactria. Hystaspes served under Cyrus the Great.
Little is known about Darius's childhood or early training. His mother was named Rhodugune, according to surviving sources, but we know nothing more about her.
In 530 BCE, Cyrus the Great appointed his son Cambyses II as king of kings in his stead, then set out to conquer the nomadic peoples to the east. According to legend, Cyrus was troubled by a dream in which the nobleman's son, Darius, appeared with wings like the Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda. Cyrus interpreted this as a portent that Darius was a threat to Cambyses's throne.
At the time, Darius was serving as a simple doryphoros or spearman in the Achaemenid army. Cyrus ordered Darius's father Hystaspes to return to the capital and keep an eye on Darius, in case he harbored designs against the throne. However, Cambyses ruled peacefully for seven years, and promoted Darius to the post of personal body-guard.
Accession to the Throne:
In 522, Cambyses died while marching back to Persia, fresh from the conquest of Egypt. What happened next is murky in the historical record. According to Darius, in the inscription at Behistun, a pretender called Gaumata seized the throne, claiming to be Cambyses's brother Bardiya.
Some historians believe that the man actually was a brother of Cambyses, and that Darius made up the false identity story to justify his own actions. Just seven months after Gaumata/Bardiya took the throne, Darius killed him at the fortress of Sikayauvati. A council of nobles named Darius the next King of Kings.
Uprisings and Revolts:
Darius faced immediate repercussions from his killing of Gaumata. Both Elam (south-western Iran) and Babylonia rose up in revolt, as they had favored the previous king. Thus began a round of uprisings and revolts that sent Darius and his army marching from place to place for several years.
When Darius was in Babylonia, putting down that uprising, he learned that the formerly-supportive satrapy of Bactria was in revolt. Next, the very heartland of the empire, Persis, rose up. As Darius worked to quell those revolts, Elam and Babylonia rose again. In turn, Media, Parthia, Assyria and Egypt also rose up against Darius; the entire Achaemenid Empire was in chaos and open revolt.
Fortunately for the new king of kings, the one section of his empire that never turned against him was the army. He was finally able to put down each one of the uprisings. The Behistun inscription records that he executed eight "lying kings" or rebel leaders in the course of pacifying the country.
Invasion of the Indus Valley:
In 518 BCE, with peace once more established in Persia, Darius decided to expand his empire eastward to the Indus River. He led his army into Bactria and then deeper into Central Asia, taking what is now Pakistan as far as the city of Karachi by 515 BCE. The Persian emperor also dispatched a survey team to explore the Indian Ocean coast from the Indus River delta back to the Suez Peninsula.
Invasion of Scythia:
While Darius's attention was engaged elsewhere, the Scythian nomads took the opportunity to raid into Persia proper. In 512 BCE, Darius decided to put an end to the Scythians' attacks by invading the Scythian Empire. The Persians marched north through what is now Kazakhstan, crossed the Danube River, and drove as far as the Volga, but never encountered any armed resistance according to Herodotus. The Scythians just melted away into the steppe, refusing to engage with Darius's army.
Nonetheless, this show of Achaemenid power seems to have accomplished its purpose. According to the carvings at Behistun, the Scythians were the last people to be conquered and made into tributaries of the Achaemenid Empire.
First Persian Invasion of Greece:
With his eastern and northern borders secured, Darius next turned his attention to the west. In 499 BCE, the Persian-appointed tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, raised a rebellion across all of Anatolia and what is now Turkey. The rebels even burned down Persia's local capital at Sardis in 498.
Darius sent troops to put down the Ionian Revolt, as it is known, but the two sides were at an impasse until 494 BCE. At that point, Darius ordered his army to attack Aristagoras's city of Miletus; the Persians triumphed over the Greeks, and the last of the rebels gave up the following year.
Although the Achaemenid army had put down the rebellion, Darius was not confident that the European wing of his empire was secure. In 492, he sent another invasion force which conquered Thrace (on the European side of the Bosporus Straits) and Macedon. Darius also sent a large naval expedition in 490 BCE with the intention of attacking Athens. However, the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, thwarting Darius's plans.
Death of Darius the Great:
Darius vowed to lead the next invasion himself, and conquer all of the Greeks. However, he did not live to see his campaign renewed. A troubling revolt broke out in Egypt, and the stress apparently impacted Darius's health.
The 64-year-old king of kings died in 486 BCE, bequeathing the war against the Greeks to his son, Xerxes I. In total, the Greco-Persian Wars would last for 50 years.
Abbott, Jacob. Darius the Great, Forgotten Books, Classic Reprint Series.
Curtis, J.E. and N. Tallis. Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Kuhrt. The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period, Vol. 1, Oxford: Routledge, 2007.
Wiesehofer, Josef. Ancient Persia, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.