Darius the Great and Persia at Its Greatest Extent

Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis

When Darius became king in 522 BCE, the Persian empire was in great turmoil.

By Jona Lendering / 05.06.2018
Historian and Founder
Livius Onderwijs


Darius I (Old Persian Dârayavauš) was king of ancient Persia, whose reign lasted from 522 to 486. He seized power after killing king Gaumâta, fought a civil war (described in the Behistun inscription), and was finally able to refound the Achaemenid empire, which had been very loosely organized until then. Darius fought several foreign wars, which brought him to India and Thrace. When he died, the Persian empire had reached its largest extent. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.

Coup d’etat

When Darius became king in 522 BCE, the Persian empire was in great turmoil. It had been founded less than thirty years before by Cyrus the Great, who had defeated his Median overlord Astyages in 550 and had taken over his empire.

Three years later, Cyrus had conquered Lydia in western Turkey, where the proverbially rich king Croesus had been his victim. In 539, it was the Babylonian king Nabonidus’ turn to lose an empire. The Persian armies had also conquered large parts of Central Asia, but when Cyrus had ventured too much to the north, he had been defeated and killed by tribesmen (530). He was buried at Pasargadae, the town he had once built on the site of his first victory.

His son Cambyses had succeeded him. He had continued his father’s policy of adding new countries to the empire, and conquered Egypt in 525. According to Greek sources like the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, this king had lost his mind when he heard that his brother Smerdis, whom he believed to be dead, had revolted in 522. Cambyses wanted to rush back to Persia, but when he jumped into the saddle of his horse, the cap fell off the sheath of his sword, exposing the blade, which pierced his thigh. Cambyses died in Syria, without children, leaving the army without commander and the empire to Smerdis – or someone who resembled him.

Herodotus’ story is more or less identical to the official Persian propaganda. In the Behistun inscription (which will be discussed below), we read a more or less identical story, although it uses the real name of Smerdis, Bardiya.

Cambyses slew Bardiya. When Cambyses slew him, it was not known unto the people that Bardiya was slain. Thereupon Cambyses went to Egypt. When Cambyses had departed into Egypt, the people became hostile, and the lie multiplied in the land, even in Persia and Media, and in the other provinces.

Afterwards, there was a certain man, a Magian, Gaumâta by name, who raised a rebellion […]. On the fourteenth day of the month Viyaxana [11 March 522] did he rebel. He lied to the people, saying: ‘I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, the brother of Cambyses.’ Then were all the people in revolt, and from Cambyses they went over unto him, both Persia and Media, and the other provinces. He seized the kingdom […]. Afterwards, Cambyses died of natural causes. [Behistun inscription 10-11]

Gaumata being trampled upon by Darius

According to Herodotus, courtiers of Smerdis/Bardiya/Gaumâta discovered the truth and started to conspire against the new king. The Greek researcher mentions six noblemen: Otanes, Gobryas, Intaphrenes, Hydarnes, Megabyzus, and Aspathines. They are undecided about the course they have to follow, until Darius arrives in Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian empire. The newcomer, who is a distant relative of Cambyses (his father Hystaspes and Cyrus had the same great-grandfather), joins the six. No guard dares to interfere when the six noblemen visit the royal palace, and in the end, Darius kills the false king. After some debate, everyone accepts Darius as king.

In the Behistun inscription, Darius tells essentially the same story, although he implies that he himself was the leader of the conspiracy:

There was none who dared to act against Gaumâta, the Magian, until I came. Then I prayed to Ahuramazda; Ahuramazda brought me help. On the tenth day of the month Bâgayâdiš [29 September 522] I, with a few men, slew that Gaumâta, the Magian, and the chief men who were his followers. At the stronghold called Sikayauvatiš, in the district called Nisaia in Media, I slew him; I dispossessed him of the kingdom. By the grace of Ahuramazda I became king; Ahuramazda granted me the kingdom. [Behistun inscription 13]

Although there are differences (was the usurper killed in Susa or Sikayauvatiš?), the outline of the story is the same. Without a battle but during a fight in a palace, Darius personally kills the usurper. It is also interesting to note that the names of the conspirators are almost identical to those mentioned by Herodotus: the only difference is that Darius mentions Ardumaniš instead of Aspathines.

Achaemenid nobleman, late sixth/early fifth century BCE. Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran)

Of course there remain several puzzles. In the first place, we have to accept that for months, Gaumâta was not recognized as the fraud he was. To us, this is hard to believe, but in fact, this was not impossible. The ancients had no photos and it was difficult to identify a person with absolute security. We know about several imposters who were able to trick entire provinces (in the first century CE, there were at least three false Neros in the eastern half of the Roman empire). In the second place: is it not likely that Bardiya/Smerdis was really Bardiya/Smerdis, and not the Magian Gaumâta? The possibility can certainly not be excluded that Darius did not kill an usurper, but a man who had a far better claim to the throne.

Darius was now king, but his kingdom was falling in pieces, and civil war broke out. Before we discuss the first regnal year, we must discuss how Darius was able to create unity among the Persians; and before we can do that, we must take a better look at the sources we have already used: the Behistun inscription and Herodotus’ Histories.

Ancient Sources

The Behistun Relief

The reign of king Darius is very well documented. Far better, for example, than that of most of his successors.

Our greatest asset is the Behistun inscription, which is nothing less than Darius’ autobiography. It is engraved on a cliff about 100 meters off the ground along the road between Ecbatana and Babylon, and consists of a relief and a text. The relief shows two Persian courtiers, Intaphrenes and Gobryas, and king Darius in a victorious pose, standing in front of a line of defeated enemies. From the sky, the supreme god Ahuramazda looks benevolently down upon Darius. In the inscription, Darius tells how he, by the grace of Ahuramazda, killed Gaumâta, became king, and defeated his enemies.

The text can not be read by human beings because it is too high on the cliff. Darius was, therefore, speaking to the gods, and this makes it unlikely that he is not speaking the truth. Above, we entertained the possibility that Gaumâta was, as he claimed to be, really the brother of Cambyses, and  that Darius did not kill a mere usurper, but a man with a better claim to the Persian throne. Taking into account the position of the inscription, we can almost certainly exclude this possibility. Gaumâta was a liar indeed. Which does not mean, however, that Darius was the first in line of succession. The question remains: why did Darius, who was not directly related to Cambyses or Cyrus, become king?

Persepolis Fortification tablet #798. From H. Koch, “Es kündet Dareios der König. Vom Leben im persischen Großreich” (1992)

Other texts from Persia are the Persepolis fortification tablets. They were discovered in Darius’ religious capital Persepolis and deal with the economic administration of the region in the years until 493 BCE. Darius’ uncle Pharnaces was in charge with this part of the Persian government. Although these tablets, written in Elamite, are not exactly entertaining to read, their content is very interesting. Several transactions deal with the sacrifices to the gods, others with the rations for Darius’ wives; we also find travel permits. So we can deduce information about the status and whereabouts of Darius’ courtiers. Comparable texts are known from Babylonia, one of the most important satrapies of the Persian empire.

A related group of sources consists of the building inscriptions of the royal palaces at Susa, Persepolis, and several other places. Although they merely state that Darius erected this or that building, they also inform us about the origin of the products, which tells us a lot about the economic realities of the Achaemenid empire. We know that at Susa, timber was used from mountains of the Lebanon and the valley of the Indus.

A source of a completely different nature is the entertaining book of Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429). This important and accessible work offers a history, geography and ethnography of the eastern Mediterranean world. A book so diverse could easily have become chaotic, and therefore, the Greek researcher organized it around the theme of the Persian expansion from Cyrus to Xerxes. The result is essentially a history of Persian imperialism, which is frequently interrupted to describe the peoples conquered by Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

In the first book of this treasure, Herodotus tells about the wars of Cyrus against the Lydian king Croesus, against Nabonidus’ Babylon, and against the nomads of Central Asia. The second book is one large digression on Egypt, and is followed by the stories of Cambyses’ conquest of Egypt and the double coup d’état of Smerdis/Bardiya/Gaumâta and Darius. In Book 4, Herodotus tells about Darius’ campaign against the Scythians; it is followed by the story of the revolt of the Ionian Greeks, which results in a Persian punitive action against Greece, culminating in the battle of Marathon. The last three books describe Xerxes’ ill-fated campaign against Greece.

Herodotus offers a vivid story -he is easily the most accesible author of the ancient world- but the reliability of the Histories is much debated (already in Antiquity). For instance, it can be proven that he never visited Babylon, even though he claims to have spoken to Babylonians and uses highly suggestive but misleading phrases like “this was still visible in my time”. Yet, he is the only one who offers a continuous account of the expansion of the Persian empire, and as a rule of the thumb, we must accept his stories, unless we have very good reasons to believe the opposite.

This sounds plausible, but during the last decades, many scholars have tended to do the opposite. This was refreshing. It was certainly important to start with the Egyptian and Babylonian sources and establishing Herodotus’ reliability only at a later stage. However, scholars sometimes seem to have become a bit too skeptical. The point is that Herodotus is neither a modern scholar nor a liar. He was, essentially, an entertainer.

There are other sources, but usually they are usually too late to add something of importance. The only one who needs to be mentioned is the Greek author Ctesias of Cnidus, who served as one of the doctors of king Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358). He claims to have written his History of the Persians to correct the errors of Herodotus, but it looks as if he is even more unreliable. Although he sometimes offers plausible information, it is far better to accept Herodotus. For example, when we discuss Darius’ youth.


We know almost nothing about Darius’ career prior to his rise to power in 522. However, we can make some reasonable inferences from the little details that we do know.

In the first place, we know from the Behistun inscription and Herodotus that Darius’ father’s name was Hystaspes. Herodotus informs us that this man was in the Persian army during the last war of Cyrus the Great, which took place in 530. The Greek researcher also tells that after a dream that seemed to predict Darius’ reign, Cyrus became suspicious of the son of Hystaspes, who was “about twenty at that time and had been left behind in Persia because he was too young for war”. Herodotus adds that Cyrus sent back Hystaspes to control Darius. A few days later, Cyrus was killed in action. We can not check Herodotus’ words, but there is no reason to doubt the truth of his casual remark about Darius’ age. It means that he was born in c.550, and we have no evidence to contradict this.

Either Cyrus or his son and successor Cambyses appointed Hystaspes as satrap (governor) of Parthia. It was in this quality that he played an important role during the civil war which broke out in 522. Already in Antiquity, it was believed that Hystaspes was the protector of Zarathustra, the founder of a new religion called Zoroastrianism. This is incorrect, however. The Vištâspa who protected the prophet, lived several centuries earlier. This does not exclude the possibility that Darius was a Zoroastrian, but it is very hard to prove this popular hypothesis.

Herodotus tells that during the conquest of Egypt, Darius visited Memphis, where he met a Greek from Samos named Syloson (more). At that time, Herodotus says, Darius was “one of the lance carriers of Cambyses and not of any particular importance”. The problem with this statement is that Herodotus seems to be unaware that the word doryphoros, “lance carrier”, he uses so innocently, is probably a translation of arštibara, the title of one of the most important court offices. Whatever he may have been, Darius was certainly a man “of particular importance”.

This is all we know about Darius’ life before his accession. It is not much, but sufficient. When Cambyses died in July, the army was left without commander, and Darius, the arštibara, now unexpectedly became general. The situation was perhaps comparable to that of the army of “the ten thousand” more than a century later: suddenly finding themselves without commanders, the soldiers chose new leaders, who gained prestige when they were able to keep the army intact and safe. Darius’ rise to power must have been more or less identical.

Other noblemen accepted him in this position. Some of them were closely related to Cambyses (e.g., Otanes) and they may have been thinking of becoming king themselves, but were unable to show their ambitions too clearly. To them, Darius, who was not closely related to Cambyses, was a dangerless interim-leader. But they had underestimated the twenty-eight year old Darius, because everything changed in September, when Darius made contact with the conspirators, killed Gaumâta and had himself proclaimed king. The first thing Darius now had to do, was improve his position and weed out opposition among the Persians – which certainly must have existed. As we will see, a man named Vahyazdâta was to lead a rebellion.

Dynastic Marriages

Achaemenid woman (or a beardless prince)

Darius was king, but the situation was difficult. To start with, the usurper Gaumâta had permitted the subject people to pay less tribute, and these nations were angry at the death of their benefactor. As Darius himself explains in the Behistun inscription:

After I had slain Gaumâta, the Magian, a certain man named ššina, the son of Upadarma, raised a rebellion in Elam, and he spoke thus unto the people of Elam: ‘I am king in Elam.’ Thereupon the people of Elam became rebellious, and they went over unto that ššina: he became king in Elam.
And a certain Babylonian named Nidintu-Bêl, the son of Kîn-Zêr, raised a rebellion in Babylon: he lied to the people, saying: ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.’ Then did all the province of Babylonia go over to Nidintu-Bêl, and Babylonia rose in rebellion. He seized on the kingdom of Babylonia. [Behistun inscription 16]

The first regnal year of king Nebuchadnezzar III of Babylonia is mentioned in a letter written in 3 October 522, four days after the assassination of Gaumâta. The revolt must have shocked the Persians, who were disunited anyway: not much later, a Persian nobleman named Vahyazdâta revolted against Darius. It is likely that he was one of those who had a better claim to the throne than the new ruler and felt offended now that Darius had become master of the empire (above). It looked as if Darius had become king of a disintegrating kingdom. Yet, he overcame these troubles, and in the year 522-521, he refounded the empire.

In the first place, he had to ally himself to the house of Cyrus and Cambyses. To be fair, he was related to these men, but from a distance: he and Cambyses had the same great-great-grandfather. No doubt, there were other Persian aristocrats who were closer related to Cambyses and Cyrus. Darius married three times to improve his position:

  1. Atossa (Old Persian *Utautha), a daughter of Cyrus. She had already been married to her half-brother Cambyses, but the couple did not have children. She bore Darius four sons: Xerxes (his successor), Ariamenes, Achaemenes, and Hystaspes. According to Herodotus, she was Darius’ most influential queen, but she is almost absent from the Persepolis fortification tablets.
  2. Artystone, a younger daughter of Cyrus the Great. According to Herodotus, Irtašduna (as she is called in the Fortification tablets) was Darius’ favorite wife. They had three children: Arsames, Gobryas, and Artozostre.
  3. Parmys (Uparmiya), the daughter of Smerdis/Bardiya. Her son was named Ariomardus.

These marriages, which must have been concluded immediately, were insufficient to ensure Darius’ position. Herodotus tells the strange story that after the assassination of Gaumâta and before Darius became king, the seven conspirators discussed the future of Persia. Was it to be a monarchy, an oligarchy or a democracy? The terms of this debate clearly belong to the Greek world, but Herodotus is adamant that there was a constitutional debate indeed, and in fact, it is plausible that Darius was forced to strike a compromise with the six other conspirators. As we can deduce from various sources, they received very important positions in Darius’ reborn empire.For the moment, the most important man was probably Otanes, who is presented by Herodotus as the man who organized the conspiracy. He was a brother of Cassandane, the queen of Cyrus and mother of Cambyses. Herodotus tells that Otanes’ daughter Phaedymia had been married to Cambyses and Gaumâta, which suggests that he was a very powerful man with a better claim to the throne than Darius. Otanes now gave the hand of his twice widowed daughter to Darius, and married an anonymous sister of his new son-in-law. (Otanes and Darius’ sister had a daughter Amestris, who was to marry Xerxes, son of Darius and Atossa.) These marriages connected Otanes to the new king. It is very probable that the alliance was concluded in the face of the Babylonian and Elamite insurrections: Otanes sacrificed his claim to the throne to a younger and more energetic man, and demanded concessions. His descendants had a privileged status in the Achaemenid empire, although Herodotus no doubt exaggerates when he says that

to this day, the family of Otanes continues to be the only free family in Persia, and submits to the king only so far as the members of it may choose. [Herodotus, Histories 3.83]

Gobryas, as shown on the tomb of Darius the Great

A similar, fifth alliance was concluded between Darius and Gobryas, another conspirator. Darius was already married to one of Gobryas’ daughters, who would give birth to Artobazanes, Ariabignes, and a daughter. After his accession, the new king married his sister Artozostre or Radušdukda to Gobryas. (Their son was Mardonius, one of Persia’s most important generals in the next generation, and married to Artozostre daughter of Darius and Artystone.) Gobryas was appointed Darius’ lance carrier, arštibara. In this quality, he is represented on the Behistun relief and on the relief of Darius’ tomb in Naqš-i Rustam. According to the Persepolis fortification tablets, Gobryas received the largest rations in the country, which suggests that at the end of the sixth century, he was the most important man in the country after the king and crown prince.

A sixth marriage was concluded between Darius and Phratagune, the daughter of Darius’ brother Artanes. As Artanes was younger than his brother, his daughter must have been too young to marry in 522. It is likely that this marriage was concluded much later.

To complete our list of royal weddings: a seventh queen was named Ardabama, who was not known to Herodotus. The Persepolis Fortification Tablets prove that she was the most powerful woman at court.

The other conspirators were, as far as we know, not connected to the Achaemenid dynasty by marriage. Nevertheless, they were important men. Hydarnes was to command an army during the winter of 522-521; his son, also called Hydarnes, became commander of the imperial guard (the famous Immortals) at the end of Darius’ reign. The conspirator Megabyzus disappears from our sources, but it seems that his descendants were somehow connected to Babylon: his son Zopyrus and grandson Megabyzus are both mentioned in connection to this city. Only the further history of Ardumaniš is not known; he was not even remembered as a conspirator by Herodotus and may have died immediately after (or even during) the killing of Gaumâta.

Intaphrenes on the Behistun Relief

Finally, Intaphrenes. He soon fell from grace. Although (or because) he had played a heroic role in the war against Babylon, he became a very powerful man and superseded Otanes as the second man in the empire. On the relief at Behistun, Intaphrenes is shown as the king’s bow carrier, standing between Darius and the lance carrier Gobryas. Intaphrenes was, in other words, second to the king only.

However, according to Herodotus, “he failed to show proper respect for the king’s authority”. His story (told here) is essentially a romantic tale about a man who makes an unforgivable mistake, but it is not unconvincing. After the civil war, which will be discussed in the next part of this article, Darius’ power was well-established and he no longer needed his associates. It is possible that he had started to demand more respect for his authority. Intaphrenes’ fall was the prelude to the Persian autocracy.

But this happened later. In the last days of September and the first days of October 522, Darius had become king, was faced with the Babylonian and Elamite insurrections, and had allied himself to the Persian nobility. But he could not prevent anti-Persian revolts. His first regnal year was to see nineteen battles.

Civil War

First Phase: Babylon

As we have already seen above, the killing of Gaumâta on 29 September 522 was seen as a sign for revolt in many subject countries. A man named ššina immediately proclaimed himself king of Elam, and Nidintu-Bêl became king of Babylon, which had lost its independence only seventeen years ago. He claimed to be the son of the last king Nabonidus and called himself Nebuchadnezzar III, after the famous ruler who had created the Babylonian Empire. Persian sovereignty had never been challenged in a similar way.

Darius and his allies were still in Media, where Gaumâta had been killed. Probably, the army that Cambyses had gathered to conquer was still intact, and this gave Darius some advantage. He immediately moved to the south, must have passed through Ecbatana and along the rock of Behistun, and reached the Tigris near Opis, where Cyrus had once defeated Nabonidus. Undeterred by this ominous location, the Babylonians tried to stop the invaders from entering their country. Darius describes the struggle:

The army of Nidintu-Bêl held the Tigris; there it took its stand, and on account of the waters the river was unfordable. Thereupon I supported my army on inflated skins, others I made dromedary-borne, for the rest I brought horses. Ahuramazda brought me help; by the grace of Ahuramazda we crossed the Tigris. Then did I utterly overthrow that host of Nidintu-Bêl. [Behistun inscription, §19]

Map of the Achaemenid Empire with Persian names

Darius’ victory, on 13 December, must have been impressive. He sent an envoy to the capital of Elam, Susa, to demand the extradition of ššina. The Elamites immediately did what had been ordered. This can be deduced from the relief above the Behistun inscription, which shows Darius’ opponents in the sequence of their death; as ššina is standing before Nidintu-Bêl, who was defeated in the last days of December, the Elamite leader must have been brought to Darius between, say, 19 and 29 December. Darius personally killed the rebel.

Meanwhile, the Persian army rapidly approached Babylon. According to Herodotus, whose story can be read here, the siege was difficult, and the town was finally taken by a stratagem. Zopyrus, the son of Megabyzus, one of the seven conspirators, mutilated himself, left the Persian camp, went to Babylon, told how he had unjustly been punished by Darius and wanted revenge, was trusted by the Babylonians, and was placed in command of their army – with disastrous results.

The truth is different. On 18 December, the Babylonians were again defeated in the neighborhood of their city, which was captured immediately. Nidintu-Bêl tried to flee but was taken captive. “Then I slew that Nidintu-Bêl in Babylon,” as Darius says. He must have believed that the civil war was over, but he was wrong.

Second Phase: Winter

While I was in Babylon, these provinces revolted from me: Persia, Elam, Media, Assyria, Egypt, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia, and Scythia. [Behistun Inscription 21.]

It was a chain reaction of revolts, and this list is not complete, because the satrap of Lydia, Oroetus, started to behave rather independently, and the Median revolt spread to Armenia and Sagartia. This was the largest revolt. Even Herodotus, who ignores the civil wars after Darius’ accession, alludes to the rebellion of the Medes. The Elamite insurrection, led by one Martiya, was not a serious matter – the Elamites themselves put an end to it. The rebellion of Vahyazdâta in Persia, on the other hand, was probably the most dangerous, because it undermined Darius’ claim to the throne. Vahyazdâta was recognized in the Persian heartland and could send out armies. On the other hand, Darius’ situation was not without hope. Darius’ father Hystaspes was satrap in Parthia, and his colleagues in Bactria and Arachosia, Dâdarši and Vivâna, remained loyal too. The latter was able to ward off an army sent by Vahyazdâta (already on 29 December).

Everything depended upon the situation in Media, the central part of the Persian empire, now ruled by a man named Phraortes, who descended from one of the Median leaders of old, Cyaxares. If Darius was able to recover this part of the Persian empire, he could isolate the other centers of resistance. However, a large part of his army consisted of Medes, whose loyalty was doubtful. He would have to find new soldiers, but could not recruit them in Persia, which had sided with Vahyazdâta. If, on the other hand, Phraortes remained king of Media and could cooperate with the other rebels, the Persians were chanceless.

Faravahar, the visual aspect of Ahuramazda. Relief from Persepolis

The winters of western Iran are cold and wet. Snow covers the mountain passes and it is impossible for armies to move. Yet Darius claims in the Behistun inscription that one of his generals, Hydarnes (one of the seven conspirators), was able to occupy the passes between Media and the Persian heartland, between the territories occupied by Phraortes and Vahyazdâta.

A possible explanation is that he had not been sent away by Darius from Babylon, but from Media. If this is correct, Darius must have sensed immediately after his accession that men like Vahyazdâta would cause trouble in the Persian heartland, and had already sent Hydarnes to control the region. He had almost reached Persia when he hard that Media had revolted, and decided to stay where he was, in the mountain area, where he could prevent the two rebels from making contact.

On 12 January, the Medes stormed Hydarnes’ position near Maruš (Mehriz, 30 kilometers south of modern Yazd). Although the Medes counted 3,827 (or 5,287) dead and had to see how 4,329 men were taken prisoner by Hydarnes’ men, the Persian victory was not as complete as Darius’ words (‘my army utterly defeated that rebel’) suggest. Hydarnes moved his army to Kampanda, which is 60 kilometers southwest of modern Yazd. Here he controlled the road between Persia’s capital Pasargadae and Gabae (Isfahan). It was a defensive position, but he had prevented that Phraortes and Vahyazdâta joined forces.

A similar action took place in the north. Here, Armenia sympathized with the Median revolt. If Armenia would fall into Phraortes’ hands, he could make contact with Cappadocia and the rebellious satrap of Lydia. It was important to prevent this, and therefore, Darius sent Vaumisa to the north. Although he won a victory on 31 December, he was unable to continue his march to the north. Yet, he was able to stay in the region and prevent Phraortes from making contact with the Armenian rebels.

Finally, it should be mentioned that in the east, there were loyal Persians who fought bravely for Darius. His father Hystaspes managed to ward off an attack by Parthians (8 March), and Dâdarši, the satrap of Bactria, remained loyal. In Arachosia, Vivâna was not only able to defeat an army sent by Vahyazdâta of Persia (above), but was also able to seize the tactical initiative. He defeated his enemies a second time near modern Kandahar, and pursued Vahyazdâta’s forces.

Summing up: Hystaspes, Dâdarši and Vivâna continued to occupy regions east of Media. Phraortes may have wanted to move to the west, but was unable to do so, because he had to secure his rear. At the same time, Hydarnes threatened his southern front, and Vaumisa, although less successful than Darius may have hoped, was too dangerous to the Median cause to ignore. In the spring, the Persians would restore order in Media and the Persian heartland. The seeds of their victory had been sown in the winter.

Third Phase: Phraortes

During the winter, which he spent in Babylonia, Darius prepared for the big attack on his two main enemies: Phraortes of Media and Vahyazdâta of Persia. In April, he was ready to strike with a large force. His aim was Media, the center of all trouble. A man named Uštânu was left behind as satrap of Babylon, and a second army, commanded by Artavardiya, marched to the Persian heartland. It has been assumed that this army was made up from Median soldiers, which Darius could not use during his attack on Media. His own army must have consisted of Persians and volunteers from the west.

In the first week of May, Darius met the army of Phraortes.

I went forth from Babylon and came into Media. When I had come to Media, that Phraortes, who called himself king in Media, came against me unto a city in Media called Kunduruš [Kangavar?] to offer battle. Then we joined battle. Ahuramazda brought me help; by the grace of Ahuramazda did my army utterly overthrow that rebel host. On the twenty-fifth day of the month Adukanaiša we fought the battle [8 May 521]. […] Thereupon that Phraortes fled thence with a few horseman to a district in Media called Rhagae [Tehran]. Then I sent an army in pursuit. Phraortes was taken and brought unto me. I cut off his nose, his ears, and his tongue, and I put out one eye, and he was kept in fetters at my palace entrance, and all the people beheld him. Then did I crucify him in Ecbatana; and the men who were his foremost followers, those at Ecbatana within the fortress, I flayed and hung out their hides, stuffed with straw. [Behistun inscription §§31-32]

Darius claims that he made 18,000 prisoners. This was not the end of the matter, however. One of Phraortes’ relatives, a man named Tritantaechmes, continued the struggle from Sagartia. But the tide was turning against the rebels. A Median officer in Darius’ army named Takhmaspâda went after Tritantaechmes and captured him. The Sagartian leader was mutilated and crucified at Arbela.

Meanwhile, the other Persian armies were moving too. Artavardiya defeated Vahyazdâta of Persia on 24 May and pursued his opponent to the east. A commander named Dâdarši (not the same as the satrap of Bactria) now invaded Armenia, where he made contact with the earlier invasion army, commanded by Vaumisa (above). Victories were reported on 20 May, 30 May, 11 June, and 20 June.

Everywhere, the resistance against Darius was coming to an end. The Parthians, who had attacked his father Hystaspes during the winter, were trapped between two forces: from the east, Hystaspes and Dâdarši of Bactria, and from the west, the army of Darius himself, which had just defeated Phraortes. On 11 July, the Parthians surrendered. Four days later, Vahyazdâta of Persia was arrested. He was mutilated and, ‘together with the men who were his chief followers, crucified in a city in Persia called Uvâdaicaya’.

Fourth Phase: The Last Resistance

Darius was now supreme ruler of the Persian empire. To inspect his new kingdom, he visited Persia (where he must have been inaugurated as king in Pasargadae), received the surrender of the rebel leader of Elam, and returned to Media. Here, he learned that the Babylonians had revolted again, but he did not go there in person.

A certain man named Arakha, an Armenian, son of Haldita, rebelled in Babylon. At a place called Dubâla, he lied unto the people, saying: ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.’ Then did the Babylonian people revolt from me and they went over to that Arakha. He seized Babylon, he became king in Babylon. […] Then did I send an army unto Babylon. A Persian named Intaphrenes, my servant, I appointed as their leader, and thus I spoke unto them: ‘Go, smite that  Babylonian host which does not acknowledge me.’ Then Intaphrenes marched with the army unto Babylon. Ahuramazda brought me help; by the grace of Ahuramazda Intaphrenes overthrew the Babylonians and brought over the people unto me. On the twenty-second day of the month Markâsanaš [27 November] they seized that Arakha who called himself Nebuchadnezzar, and the men who were his chief followers. Then I made a decree, saying: ‘Let that Arakha and the men who were his chief followers be crucified in Babylon!’note

There is something odd about these words. The Behistun inscription is a very stereotypical text. All wars are described in the same words. This war, however, is an exception; where we usually read ‘by the grace of Ahuramazda did my army utterly overthrow that rebel host’, we now read ‘by the grace of Ahuramazda did Intaphrenes overthrow the Babylonians’. It is not clear what this means, if it is significant at all. (It may be a scribal error.) But it is also possible that Darius does not say ‘my army’ because the army under command of Intaphrenes was not the king’s army. It may have been recruited by Intaphrenes himself. This may explain why Darius wanted to get rid of him (above).

Every resistance against Darius was now suppressed. Dâdarši of Bactria put an end to the last revolt, that of Frâda, a rebel leader in Margiana, on 28 December 521, after a march of three hundred kilometers through the Karakum desert. According to the Persian lunar calendar, which contained a leap month in Darius’ first regnal year, the nineteen battles -from the Tigris to Margiana- had been fought in one single year. Admittedly, there were still centers of resistance on the brink of the empire, but Darius’ men made quick work of them. There was an Elamite insurrection in 521/520, but Gobryas, Darius’ father-in-law, restored order. At the same time, Oroetus, the satrap of Lydia who was becoming dangerously independent, was punished, and Otanes (one of the seven conspirators) succeeded him. He added Samos to the Persian empire, where Syloson was made tyrant. Finally, the Scythians received a new king in 520/519.

Order had been restored in the ancient Near East. Far away from the Persian court at Susa, on 16 February 519, the Jewish prophet Zechariah had a nightly vision: he saw a man on a red horse, commanding a host of heavenly horsemen. An angel explained to Zechariah what he saw: God had sent out these riders to see what had been going on.

And they reported to the angel of the Lord […]: ‘We have gone throughout the world and found the whole world at rest and in peace.’ [Zechariah 1.11]


One of the first acts of Darius was to make it known to everybody that, by the grace of Ahuramazda, he had overcome all his enemies and was master of the entire world. An inscription, the relief and inscription were cut into the rock of Behistun. Unfortunately, the text had to be written in Elamite and Akkadian cuneiform, the most common scripts of the ancient Near East. This was against Darius’ chauvinist feelings, and he therefore ordered the invention of a special, Aryan alphabet suited for the Persian language. The original design of the Behistun monument was still being executed when new victories in Scythia made it necessary to expand the text. In 519, the Behistun inscription was finished. Copies of the text were sent to all parts of the empire.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus states that immediately after his coup d’état, the new king

set up twenty provincial governorships, called satrapies. The several governors were appointed and each nation assessed for taxes; for administrative purposes neighboring nations were joined in a single unit; outlying peoples were considered to belong to this nation or that, according to convenience. [Histories 3.89]

It is probably not true that the satrapies were created at once. Cyrus and Cambyses must have made some informal arrangements (e.g., the appointment of Aryandes in Egypt), although it is likely that -as Herodotus maintains- they did not impose a fixed tribute. Nor is it true that Darius imposed regular taxes on well-circumscribed provinces in one of the first regnal years. The list offered by Herodotus mentions India and Cyrene among the tributary zones, but they were not yet conquered until 515 and 513. Yet, it is certain that Darius did impose regular taxes and organized the empire in tax districts, which were also used to gather armies.

A Persian gold piece (daric)

As a corollary of the imposition of taxes, new coins were introduced. Until then, the Persians had used the same coins as king Croesus of Lydia; after 515, when he had conquered the legendary gold-country India, Darius introduced the gold daric (dârayaka) and silver siglos as monetary standard. As a trading device, the coins were especially popular in Asia Minor. Their importance outside this area, however, seems to have been marginal.

Another innovation that dates back to the age of Darius is the construction of Royal roads. The roads themselves were centuries old and connected the main urban centers of the ancient Near East. But Darius introduced a system of caravanserais where a traveler could change horses and find a place to sleep. More important, those traveling on behalf of the Persian government, like the inspectors known as the king’s eyes, received passports that entitled them to food rations all along the road. From the Persepolis fortification tablets, we learn that Darius’ uncle Pharnaces was in charge of the department that gave out these passports.

This tells a lot about the professionalization of the Persian government: for the first time, there was a bureaucracy. Ironically, the officials did not write in Persian, but in Elamite and (later) Aramaic.

The seal of king Darius the Great

Another aspect of the professionalization of government was the reform of the calendar. Babylonian astronomers (the Chaldaeans) had invented a better system for the intercalation of months. Darius introduced it everywhere in the entire empire. Our first evidence for this calendar dates to 503 BCE, but an earlier introduction can not be excluded. This Babylonian calendar is still used by the Jews.

Several courtiers are known by name. Pharnaces, the minister of economy, has already veen mentioned. Another one was Gobryas, who served as lance carrier, arštibara, but also commanded an army against the rebel king Atamaita of Elam. A third courtier to be mentioned is Aspathines. Herodotus erroneously mentions him as the seventh conspirator, but he was in fact the king’s vaçabara. Although we do not know what a vaçabara had to do (cup-bearer? quiver-bearer?) we know for certain that this was a very important function. After the king, the crown prince and the arštibara, Aspathines was the most important man in Persia.

Setutra Darius: his royal name in Egypt

Related to the building of the roads was the construction of large granaries for the army. From now on, the Persian armies could be extremely large and would always have a numerical superiority. As a consequence, warfare in the Persian world was to be a struggle for the possession of the granaries. Two centuries later, when the Macedonian king Alexander the Great invaded Asia, his army often followed the royal roads, which his opponent Darius III Codomannus tried to prevent.

Trade benefited from the building of roads and, to a lesser extent, the introduction of coinage. The Building inscription from Darius’ palace at Susa mentions how people from all quarters of the world worked together, how timber was imported from the valley of the Indus and the mountains of the Lebanon, and how precious stones were imported from Central Asia. Sea routes were explored as well. The Greek sailor Scylax of Caryanda wrote a treatise on the Indian Ocean.

Statue of Darius, once erected in Egypt, but later brought to Susa

In September 518, Darius visited Egypt for the second time. He found the country in deep mourning. An inscription from Memphis, now in the Louvre, tells that “on the fourth day of the first month of the harvest season of his majesty’s fourth regnal year”, or 31 August, the Apis bull had died. During this visit, Darius buried this manifestation of the Memphite creation god Ptah, and ordered the search for a new Apis, which was found on 9 November.

During his stay in Egypt, Darius gave precious gifts to the temple of Neith of Sais and the sanctuary of Osiris at Busiris. At Hibis in the Kharga oasis, in the western desert, the great king dedicated a temple to Amun, although it is likely that the Egyptian king Psammetichus II (595-589) had already started its construction. Here, a cartouche was found with Darius’ Egyptian titulary as pharaoh: Son of Re, Lord of Appearances, the Great, Darius, given life. (It may refer to Darius II Nothus.)

Darius’ attitude towards Apis and Ptah, Neith, Osiris and Amun is typical for his religious policy (and for the influence of an excellent adviser, probably the satrap of Egypt, Aryandes). The Persepolis fortification tablets mention sacrifices to several deities – not only to the Persian ones, but also to Babylonian and Elamite gods. As king of kings, Darius was the ruler of a multicultural empire, and he was willing to accept the gods of other ethnic groups.

An interesting case is the cult for the Greek god Apollo, who received special honors from the Persian authorities. Being a god of wisdom, he was regarded as the alter ego of the Persian “wise lord” Ahuramazda, and received great sacrifices. For example, when Datis and Artaphernes were crossing the Aegean Sea and visited the island Delos in the summer of 490, Apollo was honored with no less than 9,000 kg of incense. On the other hand, Persian garrisons were settled on several places outside Persia, and the settlers took their cults with them. Fire altars have been discovered on several places in Anatolia. All in all, Persian religious policy aimed, intentionally or not, at cross-fertilization.

Another relevant example of Darius’ religious policy is Jerusalem. Cyrus had promised the Jews that they could rebuild the temple of their God, but there had been opposition from the Samarians, who received support from the satrap of Syria, the Babylonian Tattenai. (An intersting appointment.) The prophet Haggai, however, demanded that the Jews, nineteen years after coming home, would actually start the construction of the temple. The inhabitants of Jerusalem sent a messenger to Susa to ask Darius what to do: build a temple as Cyrus had permitted, or not build a temple, as Tattenai requested? Darius ordered a search in the archives and allowed the construction of the sanctuary. On 1 April 515, the temple of Jerusalem was inaugurated. Probably, Darius had recognized in the God of the Jews his own supreme god Ahuramazda.

Building Projects

A king had to show that he ruled his kingdom. There were many ways to impress people. The Behistun inscription, highly visible along one of the empire’s main roads, is one example. An impressive court ritual, performed in several capitals, is another, and we can also think of the vastness of the Persian armed forces: when Darius’ son Xerxes marched to Greece, every subject country was present in his army. In this way, everybody knew how powerful the king was.

Another way to impress people was architecture. Darius built at least two large palace cities: Persepolis and Susa, which replaced Pasargadae as capital of the Persian empire. There may have been other palaces in cities like Babylon and Ecbatana, but archaeologists have not found them. The capitals of the satraps were also marked by splendid architecture, but they have not attracted much attention yet. (Sardes is a case in point. Although Persian terraces have been discovered, excavation has focused on Greek and Roman buildings.)

Darius’ best-known building project is Persepolis, or, to use its Persian name, Pârsa. It was to be the splendid seat of the government of the Achaemenid empire, where the king received guests at the New Year festival (Now Ruz). Starting c.515, Darius’ men leveled the ground and created a terrace of 450×300 meters, on which stood the Treasury and the Audience hall (Apadana). In the Treasury were stored the booty of the conquered tribes and the annual tribute, now fixed, from the king’s subjects. The Apadana could accomodate hundreds of people at the same time. The seventy-two columns which supported the roof were twenty-five meters high. The building inscription reads:

Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, built this palace.

Darius’ palace

These buildings were finished in 490. At the end of Darius’ reign, a small palace was added. The remarkable cavetto elements that crown the doors are an Egyptian influence. It was called Taçara, ‘winter palace’, but Darius probably did not live to see the building finished.

Susa, Apadana. The king’s throne stood on the large square stone to the left

Although there have been extensive excavations at Susa, the site is less well-known than Persepolis. In Antiquity, its was the other way round. The authors of the Bible and the Greeks simply ignored Persepolis but knew everything about Susa, which was clearly Darius’ favorite residence and the place where he received guests from outside the empire. Unfortunately, a big fire during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424) destroyed much of the buildings from his age. The building inscription of Susa is one of the most fascinating texts in its genre, because it describes the building of the palace in great detail:

This palace which I built at Susa, from afar its ornamentation was brought. Downward the earth was dug, until I reached rock in the earth. When the excavation had been made, then rubble was packed down, some 40 cubits in depth, another part 20 cubits in depth. On that rubble the palace was constructed.

And that the earth was dug downward, and that the rubble was packed down, and that the sun-dried brick was molded, the Babylonian people performed these tasks.

The cedar timber, this was brought from a mountain named Lebanon. The Assyrian people brought it to Babylon; from Babylon the Carians and the Greeks brought it to Susa. The yakâ-timber was brought from Gandara and from Carmania.

The gold was brought from Lydia and from Bactria, which here was wrought. The precious stone lapis lazuli and carnelian which was wrought here, this was brought from Sogdia. The precious stone turquoise, this was brought from Chorasmia, which was wrought here.

The silver and the ebony were brought from Egypt. The ornamentation with which the wall was adorned, that from Greece was brought. The ivory which was wrought here, was brought from Nubia and from India and from Arachosia.

The stone columns which were here wrought, a village named Abiradu, in Elam – from there were brought. The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Greeks and Lydians.

The goldsmiths who wrought the gold, those were Medes and Egyptians. The men who wrought the wood, those were Lydians and Egyptians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians. The men who adorned the wall, those were Medes and Egyptians.

Map of Lower Egypt (fifth-fourth centuries BCE)

Darius also ordered the construction of large-scale public works. Roads have already been mentioned (above). Another famous construction was the canal between the easternmost branch of the Egyptian river Nile and the Red Sea. It is mentioned by Herodotus, but several inscriptions found in Egypt also indicate its existence and course. As we will see below, it was finished in 498. Because ancient sailors were able to navigate on the Ocean, it was now possible to circumnavigate the Arabian Peninsula and sail from Babylonia to Memphis. It must have been one of the most important incentives to boost interregional trade.


Reconstructing the reign of Darius after his visit to Egypt in 518-517 (above) is difficult. Nevertheless, we are not entirely left in the dark. The Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus suggest that Darius’ Scythian campaign took place in the summer of 513 and it seems certain that the Ionian insurrection started in 499. There is sufficient evidence that the great king visited Egypt in 497, and no one doubts that the battle of Marathon took place in 490. Babylonian letters indicate that Darius died in the second half of November 486. This is the framework in which other pieces of information can be fitted.

These other pieces of information are the Empire lists: texts in which the king boasts that, by the grace of Ahuramazda, he is ruler of several countries. The Behistun inscription, for example, contains the following line:

These are the countries which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king of them: Persia, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, the countries by the Sea, Lydia, the Greeks, Media, Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdia, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia and Maka; twenty-three lands in all. [Behistun inscription §6]

There are three other Empire lists from the age of Darius (you can read them here):

  • On the terrace of Persepolis. This one does not mention Thrace, but does mention Induš, the southern valley of the river Indus. This proves that the conquest of southern India took place before the foundation of Persepolis, and much earlier than the invasion of Europe of 513.
  • In Susa. As it mentions the European Scythians and the Thracians, it has to be dated after 513. It also makes a new distinction between two groups of Asian Scythians, which suggests at least war in the north-east.
  • On Darius’ tomb at Naqš-i Rustam. This time, Cyrenaica and Kush (modern Sudan) are added. As Cyrene was, according to Herodotus, conquered at about the same time as Thrace, we are left with a minor puzzle: either Herodotus is wrong (and Cyrene was conquered later), or it was first ruled as part of Egypt (and became a satrapy later). The latter seems more plausible. The inscription at Naqš-i Rustam was finished after 492, because it mentions the conquest of Macedonia.

Using these bits of information, we can try to give a speculative reconstruction of Darius’ travels through the empire.

Returning from Egypt in 517, Darius must have visited Persia. It is possible that he now chose to build Persepolis. The following year, he started a large tour to the east. He must have inspected Media and Parthia (where he may have visited his father Hystaspes), Aria, and Bactria. It is possible that during this visit, the old satrap, the reliable Dâdarši, was replaced by the king’s brother Artabanus (he is mentioned in the Persepolis fortification tablets). The winter was spent in Gandara, preparing for the Indian war.

A man from Sindhu, carrying gold. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

We do not know much about the campaign in India, but it is likely that Darius visited Taxila in the spring of 515 and passed through the southern valley of the Indus, Hinduš, during the summer. This area produced gold and it comes as no surprise that the the daric coinage was introduced after 515 (above). Perhaps Herodotus’ fascinating anecdote about the comparison of the Greeks and Indians can be placed during the Indian expedition. Among the Greeks who were present was a sailor named Scylax of Caryanda, who was ordered to return by sea and explore the coasts. There is some evidence that Darius ordered his men to take sugar cane with them, a plant that appeared in the late sixth, early fifth century in southern Mesopotamia.

It is not likely that Darius returned through Gedrosia. Darius’ predecessor Cyrus had once lost an entire army in the desert (and Alexander the Great was to do the same). Instead, Darius must have taken the Bolan pass and returned through Arachosia and Drangiana. The Persepolis inscription, composed immediately after his return to Persia, is the only Empire list to mention the Sagartians as a satrapy. It is possible that this reflects a measure taken during Darius’ eastern voyage, but we must not place too much trust on this. In 514, Darius had returned and he may have celebrated New Year in his new capital Persepolis, which was still under construction.

The year 513 (or 514?) saw the expedition against the Scythians of modern Ukraine. Our main source is Book four of the Histories of Herodotus, but his description is imprecise and unclear. What seems certain, however, is that after crossing the Bosporus by means of a large bridge, Darius marched through Thrace and reached the Danube, where the allied Ionian Greeks had built a bridge. When the Persian army had crossed into what is now Rumania, the king ordered this bridge to be destroyed.note

If this is a fact, we may assume that Darius wanted to fight his way through Ukraine and across the Caucasus to Armenia or to the country of the Asian Scythians, the Sacae. This hypothesis is as close as we can get to Darius’ war aims.

Herodotus tells that the Scythians receded and refused to give battle (their normal tactic against regular armies), and lured Darius as far east as a river called Oaros. This name usually indicates the Volga, but it is more possible that the Persian army did not pursue their enemies beyond the Dnepr. Here, Darius was finally able to join battle with the Scythians, but he realized that he could never win and followed Gobryas’ advice to return to the Danube. At least, that is what Herodotus says. He adds that the Greeks at the Danube had kept the bridge intact, so that Darius was able to return safely. He left behind Megabazus as governor of his European possessions, and this man subdued Thrace.

It is impossible to reconstruct the historical truth behind this story, unless we obtain new sources – which is always possible in the underexplored cuneiform archives of Mesopotamia and Iran. No one denies that the Persians conquered parts of Europe, but the Scythian campaign remains problematic.

At more or less the same time (according to Herodotus), the Greek towns of the Cyrenaica were conquered by the Persian armed forces. It seems to have been a minor operation. The satrap of Egypt, Aryandes, ordered others to go to war: a Persian admiral named Badres, and a general named Amasis. Although Herodotus wants us to believe that the latter was a Persian, he has an Egyptian name, and it seems that he was connected to the former royal house of Egypt. He may have been the son of Psammetichus III, the last pharaoh of independent Egypt.

At this point, we lack chronological indications for about thirteen years. What happened is not clear. The empire was, by now, safe and sound. In the northwest, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea were the border of empire, and the Persians occupied advanced positions in Europe. In the east, the mountains of Baluchistan were a natural frontier, with advanced positions in the Indus valley. Finally, in the southwest, the Sahara was the empire’s border, with an advanced position in Cyrenaica.

Sakâ tigrakhaudâ. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

The Susa inscription, made after 513, is our next clue. It makes a new distinction between two groups of Asian Scythians: the Sakâ haumavargâ, “the haoma-drinking Sacae”, and Sakâ tigrakhaudâ, “the Sacae with pointed hats”. The Sacae were in fact the same people as the Scythians, although the latter lived in Europe and the first-mentioned in Asia. The change in terminology proves that the Persian government had developed a new vision on the frontier area in the northeast, where either new tribes had been subdued or a new administrative organization imposed. Probably, a war has taken place, and it is likely that Darius was there too.

Perhaps the following anecdote by the Greek military author Polyaenus belongs to this campaign. A Sacaean guide had brought the army to a deserted and waterless region, but Darius was able to rescue his men:

He climbed a very high hill, and after fixing his scepter in the ground, he placed his tiara and the royal diadem on top of his royal robe. This was at sunrise. He prayed to Apollo to save the Persians and to send them water from heaven. The god listened, and abundant water fell. [Polyaenus, Strategems 7.11.12]

It is interesting to meet Darius as rain-maker. Unfortunately, we do not know which god stands behind the Greek name Apollo. He may be identical to Ahuramazda, who was often equaled to Apollo by the Persians; an alternative is Mithra, who was often called Apollo by the Greeks; Hvarîra and Tištryâ were responsible for sunrise and rainfall.

In 499, we get more information from Herodotus again. In this year, the Ionian Greeks revolted against the Persian government. The cause of their insurrection is not known, but the weight of taxation is a plausible candidate. Darius, by now about fifty years old, did not visit the front in person. After a reign of 23 years, his position was uncontested and he could sent away very large armies; nobody would rise against him.

Instead, the king of kings visited Egypt for the third (or fourth) time, where the above-mentioned canal between the Nile and Red Sea was opened officially in 497. An inscription commemorates the event:

Darius the King says: I am a Persian; from Persia I seized Egypt; I gave order to dig this canal from a river named Nile which flows in Egypt, to the sea which goes from Persia. Afterward this canal was dug thus as I had ordered, and ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia thus as was my desire.

The inscription of Naqš-i Rustam, which can be dated after this visit, mentions Cyrenaica and Kush as new satrapies. The former was already part of the Persian empire, and the latter may have become a tributary; probably, the Naqš-i Rustam inscription merely records an administrative change. It is possible that during this visit, in 498, the satrap of Egypt, Aryandes, was executed. (He was suspected of treason.)

The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west

Meanwhile, the war against the Ionian Greeks was still going on. The Greek leaders were democrats from Miletus, and at the beginning, they had been very successful. The Persians had to witness how the Greeks had destroyed the residential areas of Sardes, their capital in western Turkey. The satrap of Lydia, Darius’ brother Artaphernes, however, had been able to keep the citadel and stood his ground until reinforcements arrived. Greek attempts to conquer Cyprus failed when the Persian navy, made up from Phoenician and Egyptian ships, turned up. If the removal of Aryandes can indeed be dated to 497, we can be sure that its real reason was the need to have a reliable admiral for the Egyptian navy.

Ultimately, the Persian army commanders -Herodotus gives their names as Hymaees, Daurises, Artaphernes, and Otanes- overcame the Greek towns of western Asia. Miletus was sacked in 494. Now, the reconquered part of the empire had to be secured. Therefore, general Mardonius, the son of Gobryas who was married to Darius’ daughter Artozostre, was sent out to conquer Macedonia (492). Although Herodotus presents this campaign as a disaster, it was in fact successful: Macedonia was added to the empire and is mentioned as a satrapy on the Naqš-i Rustam inscription.

The tomb of the 192 Athenians at Marathon

In 490, king Darius sent a new expedition to the west. The commanders were Datis and Artaphernes (son of the former satrap of Lydia). Herodotus presents the expedition as a punitive action against Eretria and Athens, who had helped the Ionian Greeks during their revolt of 499. But he is almost certainly wrong, because the army was too small to attack Athens. In reality, the aims of the expedition of Datis and Artaphernes were to add the Aegean islands to the empire, and, in doing so, create a buffer zone between Ionia and the Greek mainland. The Persian aims were, therefore, to conquer Naxos and the other islands, and to occupy Euboea (with its capital Eretria). They also tried to bring back the former ruler of Athens, Hippias, to his home town.

At first, the expedition was entirely successful. According to plan, the Persians added Naxos to their empire. Delos was seized immediately afterwards; the Greek god Apollo received a giant sacrifice, probably because the Persians identified him with Ahuramazda. A few days later, on 1 September, Datis and Artaphernes took Eretria. Its inhabitants were deported to Elam.

Yaunâ (Greek). Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

On 5 September, the Persians landed at Marathon, some 25 kilometers east of Athens. Although an Athenian army came to block the road to the west, it did not dare to attack the Persians, who were able to plunder the country for five days. Since their enemies refused to offer battle, Datis and Artaphernes decided to leave early in the morning of 10 September. When they were boarding, the Athenians attacked and inflicted heavy losses on the Persian troops.

Herodotus’ account of the battle of Marathon is our most important source. He wants us to believe that it was an important Greek victory, but from a Persian point of view this is incorrect. It was a rearguard action, and we know for certain that Artaphernes remained in the king’s favor; it is likely that Datis had the same experience. After all, from now on, the Aegean Sea was under Persian control, preventing new Yaunâ attacks on the Persian dominions in Asia.

Yet, the Persians had learned one lesson during the preceding decade: the Greeks were dangerous warriors. Herodotus claims that Darius made the conquest of the Greek mainland one of the goals of the Persian foreign policy. Although we may ask how Herodotus knows this, here is no reason to doubt the truth of his statement.


The last letter from Babylon that is dated to the reign of Darius was written on 17 November 486, and the first one from the reign of his son and successor Xerxes on 1 December. In the two weeks between these dates, Darius died, after thirty days of illness, about sixty-four years old. He had been a great king, as even his Athenian enemies admitted. Thirteen years after his death, the tragic poet Aeschylus evoked the days of Darius as the golden age of Persia.note.

The body of the king of kings was balmed, placed in a coffin and transported to Naqš-i Rustam, where his tomb had been prepared a long time ago. According to Ctesias of Cnidus, Darius’ eunuch Bagapates had guarded Darius’ tomb for seven years before the great king died, which suggests that it was finished in 493. Because the inscription mentions the conquest of Macedonia, it may have been a year later. Artistic conventions, however, suggest a much earlier date.

Tomb of Darius the Great, upper relief

Like the Behistun inscription, the tomb text at the tomb of Naqš-i Rustam is a rather stereotypical autobiography and it is interesting to see how Darius wanted to be remembered. In the upper part, he summarizes his reign and recalls the confused early days and his conquests:

Ahuramazda, when he saw this earth in commotion, thereafter bestowed it upon me, made me king; I am king. By the favor of Ahuramazda I put it down in its place; what I said to them [my subjects], that they did, as was my desire.

If now you shall think that “How many are the countries which King Darius held?” look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne, then shall you know, then shall it become known to you: the spear of a Persian man has gone forth far; then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia.

The tomb of Darius the Great (with a Sasanian relief of Bahram II)

The Lower inscription is more personal.

I am a friend of the right. Of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak.

The right, that is my desire. To the man who is a follower of the lie I am no friend. I am not hot-tempered. What things develop in my anger, I hold firmly under control by my thinking power. I am firmly ruling over my own impulses.

What a man says against a man, that does not convince me, until I hear the sworn statements of both.

My body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles. […] I am skilled both in hands and in feet. A horseman, I am a good horseman. A bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. A spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback. These skills that Ahuramazda set down upon me.

This text became an Achaemenid ‘classic’ and was copied by Darius’ son and successor Xerxes in what is now known as the Harem inscription. Yet, before these sentiments became stereotypical, they were original and sincere, and this is how Darius wanted to remembered.

Central Relief of the North Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis, now in the Archaeological Museum in Tehran (Iran)

Darius had at least six daughters and twelve sons. Only one of them could succeed him: Xerxes, the oldest son of his first wife Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. His succession had been carefully prepared. As early as 495, a frieze showing the king and the crown prince had been placed near the northern stairs of the Audience hall (Apadana) of Persepolis, where everyone who came to celebrate the New Year’s festival could see the intended successor. (The frieze was later brought to the Treasury, where it was excavated.)

Nobody objected, and when Darius died, there were no rebellions comparable to those at the end of the reign of Cambyses. Admittedly, there was some unrest in Egypt and Babylonia, but no full-scale civil war.

Darius had inherited a loosely organized kingdom. He left behind an empire that was well-organized and strong. Even when the Achaemenid empire was, after almost two centuries, subdued by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, it survived in another form: the Seleucid kings controlled more or less the same realms with an almost identical administrative organization. They were not Darius’ only pupils: during the reign of Xerxes, the Athenians, those archenemies of Persia, had started to copy several institutions invented by Darius, which is probably the ultimate compliment.

Originally published by Livius, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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