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Darius I of Persia

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Darius I
Khshayathiya Khshayathiyanam , King of Kings
Outline tracing of the figure representing Darius in the Behistun Inscription
Titles Darius the Great
Born 550 BCE
Died October 486 BCE
(aged approximately 64)
Buried Naqsh-e Rustam
Predecessor Bardiya
Successor Xerxes I
Wife Atossa
Dynasty Achaemenid Empire
Father Hystaspes
Mother Rhodogune
Religious beliefs Zoroastrianism

Darius I, titled "Darius the Great," was the third king of kings of the Achaemenid Empire. Darius held the empire at its peak, then including Egypt, and parts of Greece. The decay and downfall of the empire commenced with his death and the coronation of his son, Xerxes I.[1]

Darius ascended the throne by assassinating the alleged usurper Gaumata with the assistance of six other Persian noble families; Darius was crowned the following morning. The new emperor met with rebellions throughout his kingdom, and quelled them each time. A major event in Darius' life was his expedition to punish Athens and Eretria and subjugate Greece (an attempt which failed). Darius expanded his empire by conquering Thrace and Macedon, and invading the Saka, Iranian tribes who had invaded Medes even killed Cyrus the Great. [2]

Darius organized the empire, by dividing it into provinces and placing governors to govern it. He organized a new monetary system, along with making Aramaic the official language of the empire. Darius also worked on construction projects throughout the empire, focusing on Susa, Babylon, and Egypt. Darius created a codification of laws for Egypt. He also carved the cliff-face Behistun Inscription, an autobiography of great modern linguistic significance.

Primary sources


Darius left a tri-lingual monumental relief on Mount Behistun which was written in Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian between his coronation and his death. The inscription first gives a brief autobiography of Darius with his ancestry and lineage. To expand on his ancestry, Darius left a sequence of events that occurred after the death of Cyrus the Great. Darius mentions several times that he is the rightful emperor by the grace of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian God. In addition, further texts and monuments from Persepolis have been found, including a fragmentary Old Iranian inscription from Gherla, Rumania (Harmatta), and a letter from Darius to Gadates, preserved in a Greek text of the Roman period. [2]


Herodotus, a Greek historian and author of The Histories, provided an account of many Iranian emperors and of the Greco-Iranian Wars. He wrote extensively of Darius. The story of Darius spans half of book 3, along with books 4, 5 and 6; it begins with removal of the alleged usurper Gaumata and continues to the end of Darius's reign. After his death.[2]

Hebrew Bible

The Book of Ezra (chapter 6, verse 1) describes the adoption and precise instructions to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. It was completed and inaugurated of the sixth year of Darius (March 515 BCE), as also related in the Book of Ezra (chapter 6, verse 15), so the 70-year prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. Between Cyrus and Darius, an exchange of letters with King Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes is described (Chapter 4, Verse 7), the grandson of Darius I, in whose reign Ezra and Nehemiah came to Jerusalem. The generous funding of the temple gave Darius and his successors the support of the Jewish priesthood. [3][4][5]

There is mention of a Darius in the Book of Daniel, identified as Darius the Mede. He began ruling when he was 62 years old (chapter 5, verse 31), appointed 120 satraps to govern over their provinces or districts (chapter 6, verse 1), was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans (chapter 9, verse 1), and predated Cyrus (chapter 11, verse 1). Therefore, many scholars identify him with Cyaxares II rather than Darius I of Persia.


Birth and youth

Darius was born as the eldest son to Hystaspes and Rhodugune in 550 BCE. Hystaspes was a leading figure of authority in Persis which was the homeland of the Persians. Darius' inscription states that his father was satrap of Bactria in 522 BCE. According to Herodotus, Hystaspes was satrap of Persis, although this is considered to be an error by most historians. Also according to Herodotus (III.139), Darius, prior to seizing power and "of no consequence at the time", had served as a spearman (doryphoros) in the Egyptian campaign (528–525 BCE) of Cambyses II, then the Persian emperor.[6]

Rise to power

The rise of Darius to the throne contains two different sides to the story. Our sources (the Bisitun inscription and Herodotus) both give similar stories (below). However, historians have inferred from these that Darius' rise to power may have been illegitimate. It seems likely that 'Gaumata' was in fact Bardiya, and that under cover of revolts, Darius killed the heir to the throne and took it himself. The fact that Darius' father and grandfather are still alive (Bisitun Inscription) implies that he was not the next in line to a hereditary throne.[7]

Darius' version

The account of Darius which is written at the Behistun Inscription states that Cambyses II killed his own brother Bardiya, but that this murder was not known among the Iranian people. A would-be usurper named Gaumata came and lied to the people, stating he was Bardiya.[8] The Iranians had grown rebellious against Cambyses' rule, and on 11 March 522 BCE, a revolt against Cambyses broke out, in his absence.

On 1 July, the Iranian people chose to be under the leadership of Gaumata, as "Bardiya". No member of the Achamenid family would rise against Gaumata for the safety of their own life. Darius, who had served Cambyses as his lance-bearer until the deposed ruler's death, prayed for aid, and in September 522 BCE, he along with Otanes, Intraphrenes, Gobryas, Hydarnes, Megabyxus and Aspathines killed Gaumata in the fortress of Sikayauvati. Darius was proclaimed emperor.[8]

Greek historians

According to the accounts of Greek historians, Cambyses II had left Patizeithes in charge of the kingdom when he headed for Egypt. He later sent Prexaspes to murder Bardiya. After the killing, Patizeithes put his brother Gaumata, a Magian who resembled Bardiya, on the throne and declared him the emperor. Otanes discovered that Gaumata was an impostor, and along with six other Iranian nobles including Darius, created a plan to oust the pseudo-Bardiya. After killing the impostor along with his brother Patizeithes and other Magians, Darius was crowned emperor the following morning.[2]


Babylonian revolt

After Bardiya was murdered, widespread revolts occurred throughout the empire, especially on the eastern side. Darius asserted his position as emperor by force, taking his armies throughout the empire, supressing each revolt individually. The most notable of all the revolts is the Babylonian revolt which was led by Nebuchadnezzar III. This revolt occurred when Otanes had taken a large amount of the army out of Babylon to aid Darius in suppressing other revolts. Darius felt that the Babylonian had taken advantage of him and deceived him, which resulted in Darius gathering up a large army and marching to Babylon. At Babylon, Darius was met with closed gates and a series of defences to keep him and his armies out of Babylon. [9]

Darius encountered mockey and taunting from the rebels, including the famous saying "Oh yes, you will capture our city, when mules shall have foals." For 1 and half years, Darius and his armies were inable to capture Babylon. Darius had attempted many tricks and strategies, even copying the method that Cyrus the Great had utilized when he had captured Babylon. However, the situation changed in the favor of Darius, when one of the mules of Zopyrus foaled. At the time, it was believed to be a great miracle and an act of God. Following this, a plan was created for a high ranking soldier to pretend to be a deserter to enter the Babylonian camp and gain the trust of the Babylonians. The plan was successful and the Persians eventually surrouned the city and were able to conquer the rebels.[10]

During this revolt, Scythian nomads took advantage of the disorder and chaos and invaded southern Persia. Darius first finished defeating the rebels in Elam, Assyria and Babylon, which he followed up with an attack agaisnt the invaders. Darius pursued the invaders who led him to a marsh, where he found no known enemies but an enigmatic Scythian tribe distinguishable by their large pointed hats.[11] Even though, Darius' campaign agaisnt the Scythians would more the most part end in failure, he would soon attain larger, greater successess with his escapades and campaigns in Europe.[12]

Persian invasion of Greece

Map Greco-Persian Wars-en

Map showing key sites during the Persian invasions of Greece

Darius's European expedition was a major event in his reign. Starting with the Scythians, Darius conquered Scythia, Thrace and many cities of the northern Aegean, while Macedonia submitted voluntarily. The Asiatic Greeks and Greek islands had submitted to Persian rule by 510 BCE. They were being governed by tyrants responsible to Darius.[13]

Nonetheless, there were certain Greeks who were pro-Persian, such as the Medizing Greeks, which were largely grouped at Athens. This improved Greek-Persian relations as Darius opened his court and treasuries to the Greeks who wanted to serve him. These Greeks served as soldiers, artisans, statesmen and mariners for Darius. However, Greek fear of the Persians becoming very strong and the constant interference by the Greeks in Ionia and Lydia were all stepping stones in the conflict that was yet to come between Persia and Greece.[13]

When Aristagoras organized the Ionian revolt, Eretria and Athens supported him by sending ships to Ionia and burning Sardis. Persian military and naval operations to quell the revolt ended in the Persian reoccupation of Ionian and Greek islands. However, anti-Persian parties gained more power in Athens, and pro-Persian aristocrats were exiled from Athens and Sparta. Darius responded by sending a group of troops led by his son-in-law across the Hellespont. However, the battle was lost due to a violent storm and harassment by Thracians.[13]

Determined to punish Athens, Darius sent a second army consisting of 20,000 men under Datis who captured Eretria and moved onwards to Marathon. In 490, at the Battle of Marathon, the Persians were defeated by a heavily armed Athenian army with 9,000 men who were supported by 600 Plataeans and 10,000 lightly armed soldiers led by Miltiades. The defeat at Marathon marked the end of the First Persian invasion of Greece.[13]


The tomb of Darius I

Darius was buried alongside the other Achamenian emperors at Naqsh-e Rustam

After becoming aware of the Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon, Darius began planning another expedition against the Greek-city states, this time he would command his armies, rather than Datis. Darius spent three years preparing armies and ships for the war, when a revolt broke out in Egypt. This revolt in Egypt worsened his failing health and prevented the possibility of sending another army himself. In October 486 BCE, Darius was embalmed and entombed in the rock-cut sepulcher which had been prepared for him several years earlier. Xerxes, the eldest son of Darius and Atossa was the successor of Darius and acceded to the throne as Xerxes I. However, prior to Xerxes's accession, Xerxes fought for the right to the throne with his elder half-brother Artobazan, Darius' oldest son who was born to his commoner first wife before Darius rose to power. [14]




Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BCE

Achaemenid coin daric 420BC front

Persian daric introduced by Darius the Great, gold quality, with a purity of 95.83%. (circa 490BC).

Early in his reign, Darius wanted to organize the loosely organized empire with a system of taxation which had been passed down to him from Cyrus and Cambyses. To do this, Darius created twenty provinces called satrapies (or archi) which were each assigned to a satrap (archon) and specified fixed tributes that the satrapies were required to pay. A complete list is preserved in the catalog of Herodotus, beginning from Ionia and listing the other satrapies from west to east excluding Persis which was the land of the Persians and the only province which was not a conquered land. Tributes were paid in both silver and gold talents. The tributes from each satrap that were paid in silver were measured with the Babylonian talent, and those paid in gold were measured with the Euboic talent. The total tribute from the satraps came to a number less than 15,000 silver talents.[15]

The majority of the satraps were of Persian origin and were members of the royal house or the six great noble families. These satraps were personally picked by Darius to monitor these provinces, which were divided into sub-provinces with their own governors which were chosen either by the royal court or by the satrap. The assessment of the tribute was accomplished by Darius sending a commission of men to evaluate the expenses and revenues of each satrap. To ensure that one person did not gain too much power, each satrap had a secretary who observed the affairs of the state and communicated with Darius, a treasurer who safeguarded provincial revenues, and a garrison commander who was responsible for the troops. Additionally, royal inspectors who were the "eyes and ears" of Darius completed further checks over each satrap.[16]

There were headquarters of imperial administration at Persepolis, Susa, and Babylon while Bactria, Ecbatana, Sardis, Dascyclium and Memphis also had branches of imperial administration. Darius chose Aramaic as a common language, which soon spread throughout the empire. However, Darius gathered a group of scholars to create a separate language system only used for Persis and the Persians, which was called Aryan script which was only used during official inscriptions.[16]


Before 500 BCE, Darius had introduced a new monetary system which was based on silver coins with a weight averaging to be around 8g and gold coins averaging to be 5.40 g. The gold coin was called dārayaka and was probably named after Darius. In order to improve trade, Darius built canals, underground waterways, and a powerful navy. He further improved the network of roads and way stations throughout the empire, so that there was a system of travel authorization by King, satrap, or other high official, which entitled the traveler to draw provisions at daily stopping places[17][16]


Darius was an adherent of Zoroastrianism and believed that Ahura Mazda had appointed him to rule the Persian Empire. At inscriptions, such as the Behistun Inscription, he mentions that he believes he is chosen by Ahura Mazda to be the emperor. Darius had dualistic convictions and believed that each rebellion in his kingdom was the work of Drug, the enemy of Asha. Darius believed that because he lived righteously by Asha, Ahura Mazda supported him. [18] In many cuneiform inscriptions denoting his achievements, he presents himself a devout believer perhaps even convinced that he had a divine right to rule over the world. [19]

In the lands that were conquered by the Persian Empire, Darius followed the same Achaemenid tolerance that Cyrus had shown, and later Achaemenid emperors would show. He supported faiths and religions that were "alien" as long as the adherents were submissive and peaceable, sometimes giving them grants from his treasury for their purposes. [20] He had funded the restoration of the Jewish temple which had originally been decreed by Cyrus the Great, presented favour towards Greek cults which can be seen in his letter to Gadatas, and supported Elamite priests. He had also observed Egyptian religious rites related to kingship and had built the temple for the Egyptian God, Amun.[21]


Smuglewicz-Posłowie scytyjscy przed Dariuszem

Scythians meeting with Darius, imaginative painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz, 1785

During Darius's Greek expedition, he had taken on building programs in Susa, Egypt and Persepolis. He had linked the Red Sea to the river Nile by building a canal which ran from modern Zaqāzīq to modern Suez. To open this canal, he traveled to Egypt in 497 BCE, where the inauguration was done among great fanfare and celebration. Darius also built a canal to connect the Red Sea and Mediterranean. [14][22] On this visit to Egypt, he erected monuments and executed Aryandes on the accounts of treason. When Darius returned back to Persis, he found that the codification of Egyptian law had been finished.[13]

Additionally, Darius sponsored large construction projects in Susa, Babylon, Egypt, and Persepolis. The monuments that Darius built were often inscribed in the official languages of the Persian Empire, which were Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian and Egyptian hieroglyphs. To construct these monuments, Darius had hired a large number of workers and artisans of diverse nationalities. Several of these workers were deportees who had been employed specifically for these projects. These deportees enhanced the economy and improved international relations with neighboring countries that these deportees arrived from.[16]

During the period of Darius's death, construction projects were still underway. Xerxes completed these works and in some cases expanded his father's projects by erecting new buildings of his own.[23]

Darius I of Persia
Born: 550 BCE Died: 486 BCE
Preceded by
King of kings
522 BCE–486 BCE
Succeeded by
Xerxes I
Pharaoh of Egypt
522–486 BCE




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