A mighty leader and administrative genius, Darius the Great ruled the Achaemenid Empire at the height of its powers. Stretching from the Balkans in the West to the Indus Valley in the East, Persia was the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. Darius was the architect of a mighty civilization, building great palaces and constructing the impressive Royal Road. He revolutionized the economy, unified currency, and measurement across the empire, and overhauled the legal system. Here are nine facts about this brilliant King of Kings.
9. Darius The Great Boasted Royal Heritage
Darius the Great was the eldest son of Hystaspes and was born in 550 BC. A general and member of the royal court, Hystaspes was also the satrap of Bactria under Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses. Darius was known to Cyrus who, according to legend, had a dream shortly before his death in 530 BC. He saw a vision of Darius ruling the world and feared that the young nobleman had ambitions to seize the throne. He sent Hystaspes back to Persia to keep a close eye on his son.
However, Darius served loyally and even became the personal spear-carrier of Cambyses. When Cambyses ascended to the throne after Cyrus’ death, Darius accompanied him to Egypt. Later, Darius claims that his family could trace their lineage back to Achaemenes, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty. Darius was a cousin of Cambyses, which he believed legitimized his bid for the throne.
8. His Rise To Power Was Controversial
Darius the Great’s account of how he came to the throne has been a controversial topic of debate. According to the Behistun inscription, a revolt broke out while Cambyses and Darius were in Egypt. A usurper called Gaumata tricked the Persian people into declaring him as their leader. Darius claims that Gaumata impersonated Bardiya, who was Cyrus’ younger son and brother to Cambyses. Darius then says that Cambyses had secretly murdered Bardiya and hid this from the people.
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Cambyses hurried back to Persia to counter the revolt, but on the journey, he suffered a wound after falling off his horse. The wound became infected and killed him. Darius and six other Persian nobles then formed an alliance to overthrow Bardiya. They traveled to Media and assassinated the usurper. It’s unclear whether their victim really was an imposter, or was in fact the real Bardiya.
7. He Cheated In A Contest For The Throne
After overthrowing Bardiya, the conspirators gathered to decide who would be King and how to proceed with ruling the empire. While some advocated an oligarchy or a republic, Darius pushed for a monarchy and won his conspirators over. To choose the new King, they all agreed to a contest. At dawn the next morning, each man would sit on his horse. Whoever’s horse neighed first when the sun rose would take the throne.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Darius ordered his servant to rub his hand on the genitals of a mare. The groom then let Darius’ steed sniff his hand. Suitably stimulated, Darius’ horse neighed first. With his victory accompanied by thunder and lightning, none of his fellow contenders disputed his claim, and Darius the Great ascended to the throne.
6. Darius Defeated Nine Rebellious Rivals
However, Darius the Great’s position was far from secure. Several satraps refused to accept Darius as their king and rose in rebellion. Rival kings sprang up across the empire, taking advantage of the lingering support for Bardiya. In Babylon, a nobleman claiming to be of old royal blood declared himself as Nebuchadnezzar III. A rebel king named Assina rose up in Elam. In Egypt, Petubastis III assumed the title of Pharaoh and seized control.
Darius and his forces roamed across the empire, tackling each insurrection individually. With a small but loyal army alongside his 10,000 Immortals and the support of several nobles, Darius crushed the opposition. His inscription at Bisitun proclaims that he fought 19 battles against nine rivals and won. After three years of turmoil, Darius’ position as King of Kings was secured.
5. He Expanded The Frontiers Of The Achaemenid Empire
One of Persia’s greatest kings, Darius the Great expanded the frontiers of the empire through a series of military campaigns. After quashing the rebellions across Persia, Darius sent forces east into India. He took control of the Indus Valley and extended Persian territory into the Punjab region. In 513 BC, Darius turned his attention to the Scythians, who had long harried Persia’s northern boundaries. After Darius’ forces crossed the Black Sea, the Scythians retreated, burning and destroying everything as they went. Stretched thin and unable to bring the Scythians to the field, the Persians halted at the Volga river. Sickness and failing supply lines soon took their toll, and Darius abandoned the campaign.
Darius then subdued Thrace and sent envoys to Amyntas I, the Macedonian King, who agreed to become a vassal state in 512 BC. In the West, Darius consolidated his hold on the Ionian and Aegean islands by installing a series of native tyrants loyal to Persia. Stretching from India in the east all the way to Egypt in the west, the Achaemenid Empire asserted its status as the dominant power in the region.
4. Darius Was A Brilliant Administrator
While his conquests were impressive, Darius the Great’s true legacy lies in his incredible feats of administration. At its height, the Achaemenid Empire covered some 5.5 million square kilometers of territory. To keep this vast domain organized, Darius divided the empire into twenty satrapies. To govern each province, he appointed a satrap who would effectively act as a lesser king. Darius and his officials set fixed annual tributes unique to each satrapy, reforming the taxation system that had been in place under Cyrus.
Darius then set about improving the economy. He introduced a universal coinage, the daric, which was minted in both gold and silver. The core design showing the king running in a pinwheel fashion remained largely unchanged for the 185 years during which the Darics circulated.
Darics were easy to exchange and had a uniform value. This made it easier to collect tax revenues on things like livestock and land. Darius used this surge of wealth to fund his ambitious building projects. He also standardized weights and measures across the empire.
Darius also overhauled the existing legal system, creating a new universal code of laws. Darius removed existing native officials and appointed his own trusted judges to enforce the new laws. Across the empire, agents known as the king’s “eyes and ears” kept a close watch on his subjects, rooting out dissent.
3. He Built Mighty Palaces And Royal Roads
To keep the Achaemenid Empire running efficiently, Darius the Great built on Persia’s existing infrastructure. Perhaps the most impressive of these projects was the Royal Road. This mighty route spanned almost 1700 miles from Susa, the empire’s administrative capital, to Sardis in Asia Minor. A network of stations was set up at intervals of a day’s ride along the route. Each station kept a fresh messenger and horse ready at all times, allowing important messages to quickly travel throughout the empire.
At Susa, Darius built a new palace complex in the north of the city. On the foundation inscriptions of the palace, Darius boasts that the materials and craftsmen used came from all four corners of the empire. Bricks came from Babylon, cedarwood from Lebanon, while gold came from Sardis and Bactria. Silver and ebony from Egypt and ivory from Nubia added to the grandeur. Susa reportedly became Darius’ favorite royal retreat. Darius also began construction on a mighty new royal center at Persepolis, a monument to the glory of his empire. Bas-reliefs covering the walls of the apadana (audience hall) depict delegations from across the empire bringing gifts to the king.
2. He Preached Religious Tolerance Across The Empire
One of Cyrus the Great‘s most enduring legacies was establishing a culture of religious tolerance across the empire. Conquered lands were allowed to retain their native religions, as long as they remained docile under Persian rule. This remarkable tolerance continued under Darius. Honoring an earlier decree by Cyrus, in 519 BC Darius granted the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. In Egypt, Darius built and restored several cult temples, and consulted with the priesthood when codifying Egyptian laws.
Although historians are unsure if Darius officially worshipped the sect, Zoroastrianism became the Persian state religion. Darius himself certainly believed in Ahura Mazda, the chief deity of the Zoroastrian pantheon. There are several references to Ahura Mazda in many of his proclamations and inscriptions, including Behistun. Darius seemed to believe that Ahura Mazda had bestowed on him a divine right to rule the Achaemenid Empire.
1. Darius The Great Died Before He Could Conquer Greece
With Persia holding influence over several Ionian and Aegean cities, conflict with the emerging Greek city-states seemed inevitable. In 499 BC Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, rebelled against Persian rule after a disagreement with one of Darius the Great’s appointed generals. Aristagoras sought allies from mainland Greece. The Spartans refused, but Athens and Eretria agreed to help by providing troops and ships and burning the city of Sardis.
After six years of war, the Persians defeated the rebels and regained control of the region. Furious and eager to retaliate, Darius attempted to invade Greece. In 490 BC, the Persians destroyed Eretria and enslaved the survivors. Turning his vengeful gaze upon Athens, Darius’ forces landed at Marathon. Despite being outnumbered, a bold strategy allowed the Athenians and their allies to rout the Persians, ending the first invasion.
Darius swore to try again and spent three years preparing his forces for another assault. Now in his sixties, Darius’ health began to fail. Another uprising in Egypt delayed his plans and worsened his condition. In October 486 BC, Darius the Great passed away after ruling for 36 years, leaving the Achaemenid Empire in the hands of his son, Xerxes.