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Darius I

aka Darius the Great

Darius was born sometime around 558 B.C., a son of Hystaspes, a satrap (governor) of Parthia. How he spent his life before assuming the Perisan throne is not known with certainty, as there are several different accounts of his early life.

depiction of Darius on an ancient vase
depiction of Darius on an ancient vase

Accession to the Throne

It is known that Darius assumed the Persian throne about 522 B.C., but how he did so depends on whether you believe his account (as given in a great relief carving known as the Behistun Inscription) or the accounts written by Greek historians.

part of the Behistun Insription
part of the Behistun Inscription

Darius's account states that Cambyses II killed his own brother Bardiya, but that this murder was not known among the Persians. A would-be usurper named Gaumata came and lied to the people, stating he was Bardiya. The Persians had grown rebellious against Cambyses's rule and a revolt had broken out in his absence, and in 522 B.C. they chose to be under the leadership of Gaumata, as "Bardiya". No member of the Achaemenid family would rise against Gaumata for the safety of their own life, so Darius, who had served Cambyses as his lance-bearer until the deposed ruler's death, prayed for aid and, after receiving a divine vision, killed Gaumata in the fortress of Sikayauvati. Although ancient Greek historians agree that Darius killed Gaumata, they assert that Gaumata was the legitimate heir to the throne, not an imposter. (The Greeks may have been biased, however, since Darius conquered part of their empire during his reign.)

Regardless of whether he had killed a legitimate heir to the throne or an imposter, Darius was crowned King of Persia soon after the event. In the Behistun Inscription, Darius explains that he has the right to rule because of his descent through four generations to Achaemenes, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the First Persian Empire).

His Reign

After securing his authority over the existing empire, Darius defeated the armies of the Pharaoh and secured the lands that Cambyses had conquered while incorporating a large portion of Egypt into the Achaemenid Empire. In 516 BC, Darius embarked on a campaign into Central Asia, and by 515 B.C. he had added the Indus Valley to his empire. He then invaded and captured a large portion of the Scythian Empire to his north, after which he crossed the Hellespont into Europe, where he conquered Thrace and received submission from Macedonia. By the time of his death, Darius's empire covered some 2.9 million square miles and he ruled over approximately 10 million people.

extent of the Persian Empire under Darius
extent of the Persian Empire under Darius

Early in his reign, Darius wanted to organize the empire with a system of taxation he inherited from Cyrus and Cambyses. To do this, he created twenty provinces called satrapies, each of which was assigned to a satrap (governor). The majority of the satraps were of Persian origin and were members of either the royal house or the six great noble families. Each province was further divided into sub-provinces, each with their own "sub-governor." To assess tributes, a commission evaluated 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. To facilitate this communication, Darius built the "Royal Road" to connect the farthest reaches of his empire with his capital (at Persepolis), with messengers stationed along it so no one man had to ride more than a day to deliver the post.

the ruins of Persepolis
the ruins of Persepolis

To help regulate trade and commerce throughout his empire, Darius implemented a universal currency known as the Daric, which was also recognized beyond the borders of the empire -- in places such as Celtic Central Europe and Eastern Europe. There were two types of darics, a gold and a silver. Only the king could mint gold darics, while important generals and satraps minted silver darics. As King of Egypt in the Late Period, Darius was known as a law-giver, and for completing a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea (the forerunner of the Suez Canal). He was also renowned for irrigation projects, promoted religious tolerance, and, under his reign, a cuneiform version of the Old Persian language appeared in royal inscriptions for the first time.

a gold Daric
a gold Daric

In 490 B.C., the Persian army landed at Marathon, where it was defeated by a much smaller Athenian force led by Miltiades. Darius was planning another campaign against the Athenians when he died in 486/485 B.C. His casket was entombed within an elaborate chamber carved into a monument at Naqsh-e Rustam. On his tomb is inscribed a memorial stating what Darius wanted said about himself and his relationship with Ahura Mazda (the supreme god of Zoroastrianism). It also lists the people over whom he claimed power: "Media, Elam, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdia, Chorasmia, Drangiana, Arachosia, Sattagydia, Gandara, India, the haoma-drinking Scythians, the Scythians with pointed caps, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Lydia, the Greeks, the Scythians across the sea, Thrace, the sun hat-wearing Greeks, the Libyans, the Nubians, the men of Maka and the Carians." He was succeeded by Xerxes, the oldest son of his first wife, Atossa.

the tomb of Darius the Great
the tomb of Darius the Great

SEE ALSO
Cyrus the Great
Suez Canal

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The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Asia >> Iran (Persia)

This page was last updated on July 02, 2017.