Emperor Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, ruled the Persian Empire from 522 to 486 B.C. Darius is best remembered for his military campaigns, architectural wonders, and bureaucratic government organization.
Who Was Darius I?
Darius was the son of the provincial governor (or satrap) of Bactria and Persis during the reigns of famed Persian ruler Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses. He also served as a spearman for Cambyses and fought in Egypt under his command.
When Cambyses returned from Egypt, he found the throne had been usurped by Gaumata, an ambitious priest who posed as Cambyses’ brother to seize the throne. Cambyses died soon after his return from Egypt.
Cambyses’ sudden death and the rise of Gaumata was met with suspicion by many in the Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire), and soon a plot to overthrow the usurper was developed.
Darius claimed to be the leader of the plot against Gaumata, though some versions have him recruited by a wealthy co-conspirator named Otanes. Several other conspirators had family ties to Darius.
The conspirators gained entrance to a fort in Nisaea to assassinate Gaumata. It was Darius himself who plunged a dagger into the Gaumata. Though Otanes was originally considered the logical next emperor by the conspirators, he deferred to Darius’ ascension.
Darius was placed on the throne of the Persian Empire in 522 B.C. after participating in a plot to overthrow Gaumata.
Darius’ first task as emperor was to quell rebellions in Babylonia and elsewhere across the empire shortly after taking the throne.
The chaos began in response to the assassination of Gaumata. Darius did not enjoy the support of the people, but his army prevailed in putting down the revolts and taking total control.
Soon after victory, Darius headed westward to annex Hindush (modern-day Pakistan) into his empire.
Darius as Emperor
Darius divided the empire into 20 provincial satrapies, with each one given a governor, or satrap—many of whom were loyal relatives of the anti-Gaumata conspirators.
The satraps were known to live extravagantly, but Darius was proactive in making sure they did their jobs, appointing secretaries to each whose primary job was to send reports back to Darius about the satraps, as well as inspectors known as “the King's Eyes and Ears.”
Darius was also cautious that satraps should not misuse local army divisions and crafted a direct line of command leading to Darius that was populated with faithful supporters.
Darius and his satraps were illiterate, as were subsequent Persian emperors, and the written records of government were left to a corps of scribes who assisted at all levels with the daily work of running the empire.
Conspiracies Against Darius
Darius was known for his decisive action in maintaining his power, unflinching in his efforts to defend his place on the throne.
In 520 B.C. Darius felt threatened by one of his co-conspirators, Intaphermes, who was detained while trying to enter the king’s quarters unannounced. Intaphermes, in retaliation, attacked the guards with his swords, cutting off ears and noses, and then bound them together to be found by Darius.
Fearing a plot against him, Darius secured assurances by the other co-conspirators that they did not support Intaphermes’ actions. Darius seized not only Intaphermes, but his entire extended family, and had them all executed.
One of Darius’ most significant achievements was the creation of the city of Persepolis, located in modern-day Iran.
Considered an architectural marvel that had no equivalent, construction began in 518 B.C. Darius had it modeled on the triumphs of earlier Achaemenid building styles.
The palatial expanse was a combination of multi-level natural and manufactured terraces, accompanied by intricate stairways, walls with friezes, elaborate art and sculptures, slender columns, stately open-air courtyards, a towering gateway and majestic throne and reception rooms.
The friezes commissioned by Darius were vast depictions of the people of the Persian Empire, depicting groups in regional costumes accompanied by animals and resources native to each region, mirroring the delegations that would come to Persepolis to offer tributes to Darius.
Persepolis was not completed during Darius’ lifetime. It was up to his son Xerxes to see it finished according to Darius’ specifications.
The site is now considered one of the most significant archaeological ruins in the Middle East. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Darius’ other significant building project was the complex network of roads he built connecting the various parts of the empire.
The grandest of these was the Royal Road, covering 1,600 miles. The Royal Road included six ferry crossings and 111 food and shelter stations.
The road also featured multiple security checkpoints to help make it safe for travelers. Manned by military detachments, these were responsible for everything from deterring bandits to intercepting treasonous espionage agents.
Darius and Greece
Throughout his life, Darius looked to Greece with the desire for conquest. As early as 519 B.C., Darius sent out a group to survey the situation there in context of conquest.
Darius’ first move toward the conquest of Greece was an attempt to take control of Scythia, just to the northeast of his empire. Darius’ armies failed and shifted their assault to nearby Thrace.
Darius’ generals soon took several Greek cities and established diplomatic ties with some Greek islands. Soon, he established Macedonia as a vassal of his Persian Empire.
In 499 B.C. Aristagoras, the deputy governor of Greek city of Miletus, gained the consent of Darius to invade the Greek island of Naxos. A dispute between Aristagoras and the Persian army commander assigned to lead the campaign saw Aristagoras switch allegiances, rebelling against Persia and gaining the support of Athens.
A war erupted in Cyprus and other regions in opposition to Persian rule, with military support from Athens. The conflict concluded with the Athenian fleet being decimated by the Persian Navy in 494 B.C., allowing the Persian army to move forward into Greece.
Battle of Marathon
By 490 B.C. Darius’ forces made their way to the Greek mainland, conquering Thrace and bringing loyal Greeks into his army. The Persians made it close to Athens, but the Athenian army defeated them in the Battle of Marathon.
The Persian army outnumbered the Athenian forces ten times over, but the Persians were tricked into hand-to-hand combat that they were ill-prepared for.
Following the defeat at Marathon, the Persian Navy went into retreat. Darius returned home immediately planning another attempt at Greek conquest, but that would not happen in his lifetime.
Death of Darius
For three years following his failed conquest of Greece, Darius planned a return, but this was disrupted by a rebellion in Egypt.
Darius died in 486 B.C. while preparing for more war. The stress of dealing with the situation in Egypt worsened his already declining health, and Darius died before any action was taken.