Darius the Great, also known as Darius I, was one of the most prominent rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, which was one of the largest and most influential empires in ancient history. He reigned from 522 BC to 486 BC and is known for his significant contributions to the empire’s administration, infrastructure, military expansion, and economy, ushering in a golden age.
Darius was born in 550 BC in the city of Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan, Iran). His father was Hystaspes, a noble of the Achaemenid royal family, and his mother was Rhodugune. He belonged to the Achaemenid dynasty, which was of Persian origin, and his lineage can be traced back to Achaemenes, the founder of the dynasty.
The Achaemenid Empire
Ruled by a series of Monarchs
- Achaemenes (c. 705-675 BC) – The eponymous founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, although his rule is shrouded in historical obscurity.
- Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 BC) – Known for founding the Achaemenid Empire by conquering the Medes and expanding its territories.
- Cambyses II (ruled 530-522 BC) – Cyrus’s son, who further expanded the empire by conquering Egypt.
- Bardiya (Gaumata) (ruled 522 BC) – A brief usurper who claimed the throne after Cambyses’ death but was overthrown by Darius I.
- Darius I (ruled 522-486 BC) – Also known as Darius the Great, he established the administrative and organizational structure of the empire.
- Xerxes I (ruled 486-465 BC) – Known for his leadership during the Second Persian invasion of Greece (the Greco-Persian Wars). (In movie “300”)
- Artaxerxes I (ruled 465-424 BC) – Presided over a relatively peaceful period within the empire.
- Xerxes II (ruled 424 BC) – A short and uneventful reign.
- Sogdianus (ruled 424 BC) – Another short-lived ruler who was overthrown.
- Darius II (ruled 423-404 BC) – Faced challenges from revolts and external threats, particularly from the Greeks.
- Artaxerxes II (ruled 404-358 BC) – Reigned during a time of conflict with his brother Cyrus the Younger.
- Artaxerxes III (ruled 358-338 BC) – Restored the authority of the central government but was assassinated.
- Arses (ruled 338-336 BC) – A short reign marked by internal strife and challenges from local satraps.
- Darius III (ruled 336-330 BC) – The last Achaemenid ruler, he faced Alexander the Great in the Wars of Alexander the Great.
Darius was a Persian, and he took great pride in his heritage. He emphasized his Persian identity throughout his reign and sought to unite the various ethnic groups within the empire. He was known for his efforts to promote the Zoroastrian religion and Persian culture. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Persia, likely between 1500 and 1000 BCE. At its core, Zoroastrianism centers around the belief in a single, supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, who represents the forces of good, light, and truth.
Zoroastrians follow a moral code emphasizing the dualistic struggle between good and evil, with the goal of promoting truth, righteousness, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Rituals and practices include fire worship, prayer, and the veneration of the elements.
Zoroastrianism played a significant role in shaping the religious and cultural landscape of ancient Persia and continues to be practiced by a small number of adherents today, primarily in India and Iran.
Darius the Great conducted several military campaigns during his reign, expanding the Achaemenid Empire to its greatest territorial extent. The suppression of the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC): Darius quelled a rebellion in the Greek cities of Ionia and extended his authority into the Aegean region.
It was a pivotal conflict within the Achaemenid Empire as it marked an early challenge to Persian rule in the Ionian Greek cities of Asia Minor. It began with a rebellion against Persian authority, triggered by political and economic discontent. Darius the Great responded by sending a military force led by his generals. The revolt was eventually quelled, and the Ionian cities were brought back under Persian control by 493 BC.
This conflict had far-reaching consequences, as it set the stage for the larger Greco-Persian Wars, which included the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The Scythian Expedition (513 BC): Darius led an expedition into Scythia (modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia) but had limited success in subduing the Scythian tribes. The Babylonian Revolt (522 BC): Darius came to power by suppressing the Babylonian revolt and killing the usurper Gaumata.
Gaumata, also known as Bardiya or Smerdis, was a Persian usurper who briefly claimed the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 522 BC. He is commonly referred to as a magus or a member of the Median priestly caste. Gaumata seized power shortly after the death of Cambyses II, the legitimate ruler, under disputed circumstances. Darius the Great, a noble of the Achaemenid royal family, led a conspiracy to overthrow Gaumata and restore the rightful Persian line of succession.
Darius succeeded in his plan by proving that Gaumata was an impostor, likely an imposter pretending to be the slain brother of Cambyses, who had been kept in secret. Darius’s rise to power marked the end of the brief reign of Gaumata and the establishment of the Dariusid line of Persian kings, as recounted in the famous Behistun Inscription.
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.
The Persian Wars (490-479 BC): While Darius initiated the first Persian invasion of Greece, it was his successor, Xerxes I, who led the more famous invasions of Greece in the Greco-Persian Wars. Darius died before the conclusion of these wars. He died, after thirty days of illness, about sixty-four years old.
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.
He died in 486 BC and was succeeded by his son, Xerxes I, who continued the Persian Wars against the Greek city-states. Darius the Great is known for several significant accomplishments during his rule, including:
The body of the king of kings was balmed, placed in a coffin, and transported to Naqš-e 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.
- Administrative Reforms: He organized the empire into provinces, known as satrapies, each governed by a satrap (governor). He introduced a system of standardized weights and measures, making trade more efficient.
- Building Projects: Darius initiated several construction projects, the most famous of which is the Royal Road, a network of roads and way stations that facilitated communication and trade throughout the empire.
- Achaemenid Inscriptions: Darius ordered inscriptions in three different scripts (Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian) on cliffs and rock faces, known as the Behistun Inscription, to document his life and achievements.
- Achaemenes is a semi-legendary figure considered the eponymous ancestor of the Achaemenid dynasty, which ruled the Persian Empire. While historical records about Achaemenes are limited, he is traditionally regarded as the progenitor of the Achaemenid family and the founder of the Persian lineage that produced significant rulers such as Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Although precise details about his life and reign are shrouded in myth and legend, Achaemenes holds a central place in Persian national identity and serves as a symbol of Persian heritage and cultural continuity. [Back]
- Ctesias of Cnidus was an ancient Greek physician and historian who lived in the 5th century BCE. He is best known for his historical work, “Persica,” which covered the history and culture of the Persian Empire. Ctesias served as a court physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes II, which provided him with firsthand exposure to the Persian court and its affairs. His work is considered valuable, albeit somewhat controversial, and often regarded as less reliable compared to other ancient historians due to potential biases and reliance on courtly sources. Ctesias’ writings have nevertheless provided important insights into the ancient Persian world, and his accounts of Persian history and medicine offer a unique perspective on the Achaemenid Empire. [Back]
- Bagapates is a historical figure, known as a eunuch, who served in the court of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. While there may not be extensive information about Bagapates, eunuchs like him held significant roles in the royal courts of many ancient civilizations, including Persia. Eunuchs often served as trusted advisors, chamberlains, or guardians of the harem, as their castration made them less likely to pose a threat to the ruling monarch. Bagapates and other eunuchs would have played crucial roles in the inner workings of the court, providing insight into palace politics and the administration of the Achaemenid Empire. [Back]
- “Achaemenid Empire” https://www.crystalinks.com/Achaemenid_Empire.html
- “Ionian Revolt” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ionian_Revolt
- Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Darius I the Great.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/darius-i-the-great
- Briant, Pierre. “Darius I, the Achaemenids, and the Achaemenid Empire.” In “A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire,” edited by D. T. Potts, 33-51. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2008.
- Roaf, Michael. “Darius I the Great.” In “The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History,” edited by Touraj Daryaee, 175-190. Oxford University Press, 2012.
- “The Rise and Fall of the Scythians in Western Asia” (Jul 14, 2022) https://www.thecollector.com/rise-of-the-scythians/
- “Behistun Inscription” https://www.worldhistory.org/Behistun_Inscription/
- “Darius the Great: Death” https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/9-death/
- “Darius the Great: 9 Facts About The King Of Kings” (Feb 5, 2021) https://www.thecollector.com/darius-the-great-king-of-kings/
- “Who was Darius I?” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/darius-i-persia
- “Darius the Great” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darius_the_Great