Darius I


Darius I

Author: Grote, George

Darius I, called the Great, tells the story of the overthrow of Bardiya and of the first year of his own rule in detail in his famous royal inscription cut on a rock face at the base of Bisitun mountain, a few miles east of modern Kermanshah. Six leading Achaemenid nobles assisted in slaying the false Bardiya and together proclaimed Darius the rightful heir of Cambyses. Darius was a member of the Achaemenid royal house. His great-grandfather had been Ariaramnes, son of Teispes, who had shared power in Persia with his brother Cyrus I. Ariaramnes' son, Arsames, and his grandson, Hystaspes (Darius' father), had not been kings in Persia, as unified royal power had been placed in the hands of Cambyses I by Cyaxares. Neither is named a king in Darius' own inscriptions. Hystaspes was, however, an important prince of the blood, who at the time of revolt of the false Bardiya had apparently been the governor of Parthia. Darius himself was in the mold of Cyrus the Great--a powerful personality and a dynamic ruler.

It took more than a year (522-521 BC) of hard fighting to put down revolts associated with Bardiya's claim to the throne and Darius' succession to power. Almost every province of the empire was involved in the conflict, including Persia and, most particularly, Media. A balanced policy of clemency backed by the swift and thorough punishment of any captured rebel leader, in combination with a well-coordinated and carefully timed distribution of loyal forces, eventually brought peace to the empire and undisputed power to Darius. He then turned his attention to the organization and consolidation of his inheritance, and it was for this role--that of lawgiver and organizer--that he himself, to judge from his inscriptions, most wished to be remembered.

Such activities, however, did not prevent Darius from following an active expansionist policy. Campaigns to the east confirmed gains probably made by Cyrus the Great and added large sections of the northern Indian subcontinent to the list of Persian-controlled provinces. Expansion in the west began about 516 BC when Darius moved against the Hellespont as a first step toward an attack on the Scythians along the western and northern shores of the Black Sea. The real strategic purpose behind this move probably was to disrupt and if possible to interrupt Greek trade with the Black Sea area, which supplied much grain to Greece. Crossing into Europe for the first time, Darius campaigned with comparatively little success to the north of the Danube. He retreated in good order, however, with only limited losses, and a bridgehead across the Hellespont was established.

Perhaps in part in response to these developments, perhaps for more purely internal reasons, the Ionian Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule in 500 BC. The Persians were apparently taken by surprise, and at first the rebellion prospered. The Ionians received some limited assistance from the Athenians and in 498 BC felt strong enough to take the offensive. With one hand Darius negotiated; with the other he assembled a counterattack. The first Persian military efforts proved only partially successful, however, and the Ionians enjoyed another respite in the years 496-495 BC. A renewed Persian offensive in 494 BC was successful. The Greek fleet was badly beaten off Miletus, and the Persian land army began a systematic reduction of the rebel cities. About 492 BC Mardonius, a son-in-law of Darius, was made special commissioner to Ionia. He suppressed local tyrants and returned democratic government to many cities. In time the wounds caused by the revolt and its suppression healed, and by 481 BC Xerxes was able to levy troops in this region with little trouble.

By 492 BC Mardonius had also recovered Persian Thrace and Macedonia, first gained in the campaign against the Scythians and lost during the Ionian Revolt. There followed the Persian invasion of Greece that led to Darius' defeat at the Battle of Marathon late in the summer of 490 BC. The "Great King" was forced to retreat and to face the fact that the Greek problem, which had probably seemed to the Persians a minor issue on the western extremity of the empire, would require a more concerted and massive effort. Thus began preparations for an invasion of Greece on a grand, coordinated scale. These plans were interrupted in 486 BC by two events: a serious revolt in Egypt, and the death of Darius.

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