Life and Accomplishments of Darius the Great

The Leader of Persia's Great Achaemenid Empire

The Archers frieze from Darius I
The Archers frieze from Darius I palace at Susa, c. 510-c. 500 BC. Found in the collection of the Louvre, Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Darius the Great (or Darius I) was born in the Persian Empire about ~558 BCE and died in -486/485 BCE. The Old Persian version of his name was Darayava(h)uš; in Elamite, it was Da-ri-(y)a-ma-u-iš; in Babylonian Da-(a-)ri-ia-(a-)muš, and in Aramaic it was Drywhwš. We know all that because he had his name carved on stone and written on papyrus in several languages to reach all of the members of his great empire as well as those who were not his subjects.

In English, we call him Darius I, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the second great flourishing of the Persian Empire after his putative relative ​Cyrus the Great. Darius was a great king and empire builder, ruling and expanding the Persian empire for some forty years between 522 BCE and his death.

Birth and Family

According to his own autobiography, Darius was the son of Hystaspes and the grandson of Arsames, both of whom were Achaemenids: In ascending the throne, he tells us, he traced his lineage back 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 he 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 530–522 BCE. He died from natural causes, but he left his throne was 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 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
  • He 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 man had to ride more than a day to deliver the post.
  • He completed the first version of the Suez Canal, leading from the Nile to the Red Sea
  • He was renowned for innovations in water control, including an extensive set of irrigation canals and wells known as qanats throughout his empire
  • As the King of Egypt during the Late Period, he was known as a law-giver

Death and Succession

Darius died in the final weeks of November 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.

Sources

  • Waters, Matt. "Cyrus and the Achaemenids." Iran 42 (2004): 91–102. Print.
  • Young, Jr., T. Cuyler "The Early History of the Medes and the Persians and the Achaemenid Empire to the Death of Cambyses." The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 4: Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean, C.525 to 479 BC. Eds. Boardman, John, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.