Biography of Darius the Great, Leader of Persia's Achaemenid Empire

The Archers frieze from Darius I

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Darius the Great (550 BCE–486 BCE) was the fourth Persian king of the Achaemenid Empire. He ruled the empire at its height, when its lands included much of West Asia, the Caucasus, as well as parts of the Balkans, Black Sea coastal regions, North Caucasus, and Central Asia. Under Darius' rule, the kingdom stretched to the Indus Valley in the far east and portions of north and northeast Africa including Egypt, Libya, and Sudan.

Fast Facts: Darius the Great

  • Known For: Persian king at the height of the Achaemenid Empire
  • Also Known As: Darius I, Darayavauš, Dariamauiš, Dariiamuš, Drywhwš
  • Born: 550 BCE
  • Parents: Hystaspes, Rhodogune
  • Died: 486 BCE in Iran
  • Children: Darius had at least 18 children
  • Spouses: Parmys, Phaidime, Atossa, Artystone, Phratagone
  • Notable Quote: "Force is always beside the point when subtlety will serve."

Early Life

Darius was born in 550 BCE His father was Hystaspes and his grandfather was Arsames, both of whom were Achaemenids. In ascending the throne, Darius noted in his own autobiography that he traced his lineage to Achaemenes. "From long ago," said Darius, "We are princely, from long ago our family was royal. Eight of my family were formerly kings, I am the ninth; nine are we in two lines." That was a bit of propaganda: Darius achieved his rule of the Achmaenids chiefly by overcoming his opponent and rival for the throne Gaumata.

Darius's first wife was a daughter of his good friend Gobryas, although we don't know her name. His other wives included Atossa and Artystone, both daughters of Cyrus; Parmys, the daughter of Cyrus's brother Bardiya; and the noblewomen Phratagune and Phaidon. Darius had at least 18 children.

Accession of Darius

Darius ascended to the Achmaenid throne at the tender age of 28, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were still alive. His predecessor was Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great and Cassandane, who ruled the Achaemenid empire between 530 and 522 BCE Cambyses died from natural causes, but he left his throne in dispute. By right, Cambyses' heir should have been his brother Bardiya—Darius claimed Bardiya had been slain by Cambyses, but somebody showed up claiming he was the missing brother and heir to the throne.

According to Darius's version of events, the "imposter" Gaumata arrived after Cambyses' death and claimed the vacated throne. Darius slew Gautama, thereby "restoring the rule to the family." Darius was not a close relative of "the family" so it was important for him to legitimize his rule by claiming descent from an ancestor of Cyrus.

This and details of Darius' violent treatment of Gautama and the rebels are inscribed on a large relief at Bisitun (Behistun), in three different languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. Carved into a cliff face 300 feet above the Royal Road of the Achaemenids, the text was not legible to the passersby, although the images of Gautama being subjected certainly were. Darius saw that the cuneiform text was widely circulated throughout the Persian Empire.

In the Behistun Inscription, Darius explains why he has the right to rule. He says he has the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda on his side. He claims royal blood lineage through four generations to the eponymous Achaemenes, the father of Teispes, who was the great-grandfather of Cyrus. Darius says his own father was Hystaspes, whose father was Arsanes, whose father was Ariamnes, a son of this Teispes.

Notable Accomplishments

Darius expanded the Persian empire from the Sakas beyond Sogdiana to the Kush, and from Sind to Sardis. He also refined and expanded the Persian satrapy form of administrative rule, dividing his empire into 20 pieces and providing each piece an authority (generally a relative) to rule over them, and placing additional security measures to reduce revolt.

Darius moved the Persian capital from Pasagardae to Persepolis, where he had built a palace and a treasury, where the enormous wealth of the Persian empire would be safely stored for 200 years, only to be looted by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. He constructed the Royal Road of the Achaemenids from Susa to Sardis, connecting the far-flung satrapies and building staffed way stations so no one had to ride more than a day to deliver the post.

Additionally, Darius:

  • Completed the first version of the Suez Canal, leading from the Nile to the Red Sea;
  • Was renowned for innovations in water control, including an extensive set of irrigation canals and wells known as qanats throughout his empire;
  • Was known as a law-giver when serving as the king of Egypt during the Late Period.

Death and Legacy

Darius died in 486 BCE following an illness at about the age of 64. His coffin was buried at Naqsh-e Rostam. On his tomb is inscribed a memorial, in cuneiform script in Old Persian and Akkadian, stating what Darius wanted people to say about himself and his relationship with Ahura Mazda. 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.

Darius's successor was not his first born, but rather Xerxes, the oldest son of his first wife, Atossa, making Xerxes a grandson of Cyrus the Great. Both Darius and his son Xerxes participated in the Greco-Persian or Persian Wars.

The last king of the Achaemenid Dynasty was Darius III, who ruled from 336–330 BCE Darius III was a descendant of Darius II (ruled 423-405 BCE), who was a descendant of King Darius I.


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Gill, N.S. "Biography of Darius the Great, Leader of Persia's Achaemenid Empire." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Biography of Darius the Great, Leader of Persia's Achaemenid Empire. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Biography of Darius the Great, Leader of Persia's Achaemenid Empire." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).