Darius the Great: Persian Emperor, Foe of Greece

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Darius the Great was one of the most famous of the rulers of the Persian Empire, which at one time was the largest the world had ever seen. He pushed the boundaries of the empire to their further extent and ruled for more than three decades. He is possibly most well-known in the West, however, for his decision to invade Greece in the late 4th Century B.C.

Darius was born in 550 B.C. His father was a satrap (or governor) of two provinces, Bactria and Persis.

Cyrus the Great had founded the Persian Empire in the 5th Century B.C. and had ruled for 30 years, gaining a reputation as a keen strategist but also a benevolent ruler. Cyrus's son became Cambyses II in 529 B.C., when his father died, and ruled for seven years. He conquered Egypt but, neglecting to shore up his home situation, left the door open for takeover. A pretender briefly seized the throne, and Cambyses undertook a forced march back home to reassert his authority. He died before he could return.

A general and also one of his distant relatives, Darius reached the Persian capital, killed the pretender, and took the throne for himself. This was the Darius the Great famous Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, who proved a worthy successor to the void left by Cyrus's passing. Darius proved an able administrator, creating the satrap system that served the expansive empire so well for two centuries. Each satrapy, or province, had a ruler, the satrap, who ruled in the emperor's name and functioned much as a modern governor would have. Darius, just to make sure that everyone remembered who the real ruler was, appointed a military commander for each satrapy as well and stipulated that that commander report only to the emperor.

Darius also had a ring of spies who traveled along the Royal Road and elsewhere, keeping him advised of economic progress, military readiness, and political unrest. The Royal Road was a creation of Cyrus, who also established a postal system, which involved a series of couriers who traveled on horseback, going from station to station, each of which was about a day's ride apart. The Royal Road stretched more than 1,300 miles from Sardis, the royal capital, to Susa, an administrative capital. It was under Darius that the Persian Empire stretched to its greatest extent.

Persian Empire map

Darius took the tribute money that his own client kings and conquered peoples paid into the royal treasury and plowed it back into the landscape, funding irrigation schemes and roading projects and even a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile River. What Darius also did to cement Persian common purpose was institute a common currency (the darayaka) and a common language, Aramaic.

Some of the royal treasury went toward the emperor's own projects, of course, and one of those was a new royal capital, at Persepolis. This became one of the most wealthiest cities in the world. Darius also ordered construction on many temples in Egypt and a palace for himself in Susa.

In 499 B.C., a large number of people who lived in Ionia, in colonies that used to be Greek, rose up against Persian rule. Athens supported the revolt, and Darius resolved to punish Athens for its interference.

A very large fleet, supported by a very large army, sailed for Greece. Darius was supremely confident in the abilities of his armies and their commanders in what came to be known as the Greco-Persian Wars. He (and many other leaders at the time) were quite surprised when the Athenian forces won at the Battle of Marathon, in 490 B.C.

Battle of Marathon

On paper, it was a mismatch. Persian troops numbered about 100,000. Athenian troops numbered 20,000. The victory was due more to surprise and discipline than anything else. The well-trained Athenian soldiers did not break formation as they suddenly charged the Persian lines. In the face of such a determined charge, Persian soldiers broke ranks and ran, and were slaughtered from behind. The Persians were expecting individual, hand-to-hand fighting. The Athenians gave them a mass, united charge. The sheer weight of the charge must have been astounding. The Persian force was large but scattered and poorly organized. The Athenian force was not intimidated by the larger numbers of their opponents. They almost literally drove their opponents into the sea.

Darius was also the ruler who ordered the production that has come to known as the Behistun Inscription. Carved into the mountain of the same Behiston Inscriptionname, the inscription describes Darius's ancestry and details events that occurred during his struggles to repulse rebellions in the wake of the deaths of both Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II. The very large inscription included words carved in three languages: Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian. Later historians made use of the inscription in order to understand cuneiform in the same way that others used the Rosetta Stone to understand hieroglyphs.

Darius died in 486 B.C., still hoping to conquer Greece and preparing for another such invasion. His son became Xerxes I.

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David White