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Darius I, King of Persia

April 05, 2011
by Colleen Brondou
His administrative skill—and his intelligent and tolerant leadership—earned Darius I the title of Darius the Great. He built the magnificent city of Persepolis and left behind inscriptions telling the story of his successes.

Darius I’s Early Life

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Born in 550 B.C., Darius I (known as Darrioush in Persian, and Darayarahush) was the son of Hystaspes, a satrap (governor) of Parthia, located in present-day Iran. He was a member of the Achaemenid family. Cyrus the Great and his son, Cambyses II, also belonged to the Achaemenid family, but to a different branch.

Cambyses was ruler when a man named Gaumata took the throne by pretending to be Cambyses’ brother, Bardiya, who had been secretly assassinated in 525 B.C. Cambyses set out to reclaim the throne for himself, but he was killed while traveling from Egypt to Persia “as the result of either an accident or suicide, leaving no heir.”

Darius, meanwhile, wanted to claim the throne for himself. He killed the usurper Gaumata (or “false Bardiya”) in 522 B.C. and assumed the role of king. “Some modern scholars consider that he invented the story of Gaumata in order to justify his actions and that the murdered king was indeed the son of Cyrus,” wrote Middle East historian J.M. Munn-Rankin.

Darius I as King of Persia

Darius began his reign by quelling revolts in the eastern half of the empire, most notably in Persia, Babylon and Media. By 519 B.C., he had secured control over the rebelling territories, allowing him to begin expanding his empire.

He attacked the Scythians to the north, and crossed the Hellespont into Europe, where he conquered Thrace and received submission from Macedonia. To the east, he conquered the Indus valley in modern-day India. At its peak, Darius’ empire covered 2.9 million square miles and included approximately 10 million people.

He built his first capital at Susa, and then founded Persepolis in 518 B.C. Now an UNESCO World Heritage site, Persepolis “was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models,” the UNESCO World Heritage Centre reports.

Even though he was a fierce soldier, Darius saw himself more as “an organizer and lawgiver rather than as a mere conqueror,” the Encyclopedia of World Biography explains. He divided his empire into provinces and appointed royal governors to carry out his commands in every province. To make communication easier, he established a royal courier system with relays of horses and riders, and he introduced coinage and promoted religious tolerance.

Darius also made improvements to the transportation system: He built a canal—a forerunner of the Suez Canal—between the Red Sea and the Nile. In addition, “it is during his reign that mention is first made of the Royal Road … a great highway stretching all the way from Susa to Sardis with posting stations at regular intervals,” the British Museum explains.

Despite his many accomplishments, Darius is perhaps best known for suffering defeat at the Battle of Marathon. He sought to punish the Athenians for their support of the Ionian Revolts in the 490s B.C., sending a large army across the Aegean Sea. In 490 B.C., the Persian army landed at Marathon, where it was defeated by a much smaller Athenian force led by Miltiades.

Darius’ army was forced to retreat, but he soon began preparations to invade Greece on a grand scale. He was distracted by a revolt in Egypt, however, and died in 486 B.C.

Darius the Great’s Legacy

As the British Art Museum explains, under Darius’ reign, a cuneiform version of the Old Persian language appeared in royal inscriptions for the first time. Much of what is known about Darius today has been revealed through his own inscriptions; the Behistan Inscription is considered the most important, and is located at his tomb. An English translation of the Behistan Inscription is available online at the Internet Archive.

In 1866, another inscription by Darius was found. Workers digging on the Suez Canal found fragments of a granite stele that had an inscription in four languages (Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian and Egyptian).

“I ordered to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia,” the inscription read. “Therefore, when this canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.”

Though it was eventually destroyed by Alexander the Great, the grand city of Persepolis was also a testament to Darius the Great’s visionary leadership. Perspepolis3D.com, a Web site that documents the virtual reconstruction of the city, explains that an “air of tolerance, leniency and dignity of mankind are manifest in the artistic symbolism of the architecture of Persepolis.” Visit the site to get a glimpse of the city’s urban design and take a virtual tour of individual structures.

The city—particularly Darius’ palace—was filled with “strange sculptures of wild beasts and unfamiliar deities,” Artcyclopedia explains. View a lion frieze from the palace and click to view more works, now on display at the Louvre Museum, along with photos of the ruins of Persepolis.

Northwest of Persepolis lies the Husain Kuh mountain range and the site of Naqsh-i-Rustam. Here, carved into a cliff, Darius the Great and his successors are entombed. “Only the tomb of Darius I can be identified beyond doubt by inscriptions,” the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago reports.

The tomb is marked by a dramatic façade and reliefs depicting Darius, Ahuramazda (god of the Zoroastrian religion), throne bearers, weapon bearers, Persian guards and trilingual cuneiform inscriptions.
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