Darius I

Darius I (522-486 B.C.), called "the Great," was a Persian king. A great conqueror and the chief organizer of the Persian Empire, he is best known for the unsuccessful attack on Greece which ended at Marathon.

A member of a collateral branch of the Achaemenidian royal family, Darius apparently was not close to the throne when Cambyses died in 522 B.C. The story of Darius's accession is told most fully by the Greek Herodotus, whose version clearly reflects the official account set up by Darius's own order in the famous rock inscription at Behistun.

According to Herodotus, Cambyses had had his brother Smerdis (Bardiya) executed, but while Cambyses was absent in Egypt, a Magian priest named Gaumata, trusting in a chance resemblance, put himself forward as Smerdis and seized the throne. Cambyses started back but died en route, and the false Smerdis was generally accepted. Darius, with the aid of a few who knew that Smerdis was dead, murdered Gaumata and in his own person restored the royal line.


Organization of the Empire

Though Darius was an excellent soldier and extended his empire east, north, and into Europe, he saw himself as an organizer and lawgiver rather than as a mere conqueror. Little of his work was startlingly original, but the blending of the old and new and the interlocked ordering of the whole gave his work importance. He divided the empire into 20 huge provinces called satrapies, each under a royally appointed governor called a satrap who had administrative, military, financial, and judicial control in his province. To check on such powerful subordinates, Darius also appointed the satrap's second-in-command, having him report to the King separately. Standing garrisons under commanders independent of the satrap were stationed strategically. However, since all these officials were more or less permanent, there remained the possibility that all three might conspire to plot revolt. Accordingly, a further set of royal officials—inspectors called the King's "eyes" or "ears"—were frequently sent out.

Since in so huge an empire—it covered some 1 million square miles—there was always the problem of communication and transportation, Darius established a system of well-maintained all-weather roads and a royal courier system with posthouses and regular relays of horses and riders. The trip from Sardis in western Asia Minor to Susa in Persia normally took 3 months; a royal message could cover it in a week.

Darius also regulated the tribute, hitherto collected irregularly as needed, on a fixed annual basis according to the wealth of each satrapy. Though hardly low, this tribute does not appear to have been burdensome. He also instituted the first official Persian coinage.

Military Organization

Militarily the empire was organized on the satrap system, but the results were less happy. Aside from the resident garrisons and the royal bodyguard there was no standing army. At need, satraps involved were ordered to raise a quota of men and bring them, armed and ready, to an appointed assembly point. Inescapably, a Persian army was thus long on numbers but short on uniformity; each contingent was armed and trained in its local fashion and spoke its native tongue. Persian infantry was usually of very poor quality; the cavalry, provided by the Persians themselves, the Medes, and the eastern steppe dwellers, was generally quite good. The Persian fleet was levied in the same manner as the army, but since the Mediterranean maritime peoples all copied from each other, there was little problem of diversity. The fleet's weakness was that, being raised entirely from among subject peoples, it had no real loyalty.


Darius's Religion

Darius, himself a firm supporter of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, said in the Behistun inscription that Ahura Mazda "gave" him his kingdoms, and with him Zoroastrianism became something like the national religion of the Persians. For the empire, however, he continued Cyrus's policy of toleration of local cults, and this mildness became and remained, except perhaps under Xerxes, a distinctive feature of Persian rule.

War with the Greeks

Darius's first European campaign, about 513, was aimed not at Greece but north toward the Danube. Herodotus recorded that Darius intended to conquer the complete circuit of the Black Sea and that he was turned back north of the Danube by the native Scythians' scorched-earth policy. This may be, or it may be that Darius never intended any permanent conquest north of the Danube and that Herodotus turned a limited success into a grandiose failure in order to make all Persian operations in Europe at least partly unsuccessful. Darius did secure the approaches to Greece and the control of the grain route through the Bosporus.

The next act in the Greco-Persian drama was the so-called lonian Revolt (499-494), an uprising against Persia of most of the Greeks of Asia Minor headed by the Ionians, and particularly by the city of Miletus. Though the revolt was put down by Darius's generals, its seriousness is indicated by its length and by the fact that the Ionians' appeal to the Greek homeland was answered, at least in part, by Athens and Eretria.

Darius had to take the Greek matter seriously. Not only did he have the duty of avenging the burning of his city of Sardis during the revolt, but he must have become convinced that to ensure the quiet of his Greek subjects in Asia Minor he would have to extend his rule also over their brothers across the Aegean. After the collapse of the revolt, the attempt of Darius's son-in-law, Mandonius, to carry the war into Greece itself ended when the Persian fleet was wrecked in a storm off Mt. Athos (492).


Battle of Marathon

Perhaps Mardonius's ill-fated venture was really an attempt to conquer all Greece; the next effort certainly was not. Darius sent a naval expedition—he himself never set eyes on Greece—against only Athens and Eretria (490). The attack was perfectly well known to becoming, but the Greeks had their customary difficulties of cooperation, and Eretria, unsupported, fell and was burned in revenge for Sardis. Athens appealed to the Grecian states, but only 1,000 men from little Plataea reached Athens.

The Persians landed on the small plain of Marathon northeast of Athens, and the Greeks took up station in easily defendable nearby hills out of reach of the Persian cavalry. After some days' waiting, the Persians began to reembark, perhaps for a dash on Athens. The Greeks, led by Miltiades, were forced to attack, which they did with a lengthened front to avoid encirclement by the more numerous Persians. In this first major encounter between European and Asian infantry, the Greek closely knit, heavily armed phalanx won decisively. The Persian survivors sailed at once for Athens, but Miltiades rushed his forces back, and the Persians arrived to see the Greeks lined up before the city. Abandoning action, they sailed home, and the campaign of Marathon was over.

Though to the Western world Marathon was a victory of enormous significance, to the Persians it was only a moderately serious border setback. Yet this defeat and peace in Asia Minor called for the conquest of all Greece, and Darius began the mighty preparations. A revolt in Egypt, however, distracted him, and he died in 486, leaving the next attack for his son Xerxes.


Further Reading on Darius I

Herodotus's History is the principal source of information on Darius. Aeschylus's Persae is also important. The Behistun inscription is Darius's official account; it is contained in Roland G. Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (1950; 2d ed. rev. 1953). The fullest recent treatment of Darius is in A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948; rev. ed. 1959), which asserts that Darius was a usurper. Roman Ghirshman, Iran from the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest (1954), is more traditional. Richard Frye, The Heritage of Persia (1963), is also of interest.