Ancient Persian Kings: Darius the Great

The Time of Prosperity for Ancient Persia

Known as a builder and a diplomat, Darius the Great helped Persia continue to rise in status in the ancient world, but unrest marked his reign in its beginning and end.

King Darius I of Persia was a part of the Achaemenid Empire that dominated the ancient world before the Greek city-states began to rise to power. The Achaemenid Empire was first established by Cyrus the Great, who was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II. While Cambyses II was campaigning abroad, someone claiming to be his brother Smerdis seized the throne.

Darius claimed this man was an impostor, and that the real Smerdis had been murdered by a jealous Cambyses years earlier. As such, Darius killed the impostor and claimed the throne for himself. Hearing the news that Darius had seized power, Cambyses II prepared to march on him, but mysteriously died. According to Darius, Cambyses killed himself because he realized that Darius was too great a foe to overcome; according to other sources, Cambyses died in an unfortunate accident when he cut his leg by his own sword.

Darius the Great Fights a Civil War

The upheaval and uncertainty of who was the rightful heir of the Achaemenid Empire as Darius ascended provided a convenient excuse for some of the Empire’s subjects to rebel. Rebellion began in Elam, where Assina declared himself king, and in Babylon, where Nidintu-Bel reclaimed Babylonian independence from Persia. But Darius swiftly defeated Nidintu-Bel’s army, and then asked the Elamites to send him Assina. Seeing what had happened to the Babylonians, they sent Assina without argument. Darius killed Assina personally, making him an example for those who would stand against him. At the beginning of his rule, Darius the Great fought nearly twenty battles and executed ten would-be kings.

Darius the Great as a Benevolent Ruler

Despite the bloody beginnings, Darius’s long reign was by and large a time of peace and prosperity for the Persians. Although he ruthlessly seized power and defeated his rivals, once they had been defeated he tended to forgive the rebelling areas. In fact, for three years he did not collect taxes nor recruit conscripts from these areas.

This benevolence, somewhat unusual in the ancient world, began with Darius’s predecessor, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus the Great was famous for his religious and cultural tolerance, and his skillful ability at assimilating the customs of conquered countries into his Empire rather than imposing Persian culture upon them. Darius maintained a similar style. Likewise, when Darius’s governor in Jerusalem inquired if the Jews should be allowed to rebuild their Temple, Darius’s reply to him was that they should not just be allowed, but public funds should be used to build the Temple.

Darius the Great as a Builder

The tribute Darius collected from all over the mammoth kingdom was reinvested into massive building projects. Some of these included the building of Persepolis, the new and grand capital city of the Persian Empire; an impressive canal that stretched from the Nile River to the Suez, thus uniting Persia by water; and an extensive network of roads. Strictly forbidding slavery, the builders of Darius’s projects were all paid laborers.

The inscription on Darius the Great’s tomb reads: “…I am such a sort that I am a friend to the right, I am not a friend to the wrong; it is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my desire that the mighty should have wrong done to him by the weak.”

The End of Darius’s Reign

The end of Darius’s reign, like the beginning, was marked by bloodshed. In an attempt to quell the rebellious Greeks, Darius marched on Greece and lost in the battle of Marathon. This defeat led to Darius’s successor, Xerxes I, to seek revenge on the Greeks – and it was this ill-fated attempt at revenge that eventually led to the unraveling of the ancient Persian Empire.

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