top of page

Ancient Near East - Darius I

Updated: Sep 8, 2021


Smerdis continued to rule until September 522 B.C. when he was assassinated by seven Persian noblemen. The ringleader of the coup was Darius, who had been a lance-bearer to Cambyses II. Now that all male descendants of Cyrus had died, Darius crowned himself king. He claimed to be a distant cousin of Cyrus and stated that the man who claimed to be Smerdis was, in fact, an impostor. A civil war followed, along with several revolts across the region, including Babylon and Assyria, in which Darius I defeated all against him and reasserted his authority over the empire. With the rise of Darius I, a different branch of the Acharmenid Dynasty rose to power.

Following his coronation at Pasargadae, Darius moved to Ecbatana. Darius I created a loyal army which was led by close confidants and nobles (including the six nobles who had helped him remove Smerdis from power). Darius then embarked on a campaign to Egypt to put down a rebellion by Pharaoh Petubastis III. This campaign was successful, but the main cause of the rebellion is unknown. The ancient Greek historian Polyaenus stated that it was the oppressing taxation imposed by the satrap Aryandes and there seems to be some truth to this as Darius I later had him executed for treason, most likely for attempting to issue his own coinage.

Darius I took a greater interest in Egyptian internal affairs than Cambyses II. He reportedly codified the laws of Egypt and successfully completed the excavation of a canal system at Suez, allowing passage from the Bitter Lakes to the Red Sea, much preferable to the arduous desert land route. This feat also allowed Darius to import skilled Egyptian laborers and artisans to construct his palaces in Persia. With this, a lowering of quality in Egyptian architecture and art from this period began due to the loss of these skilled individuals.

The following year, in 518 B.C., Darius conquered parts of India, namely northern Punjab as his inscriptions testify. The division of the Persian Empire began under Cyrus, but Darius solidified these divisions by creating more provinces, or satraps, and as a result, this new territory in India became the 20th satrap, along with parts of the Indus Valley.

Darius then turned against the Scythians. These were a group of northern Iranian nomadic tribes who had invaded Media, killed Cyrus in battle, revolted against Darius, and threatened to disrupt trade between Central Asia and the shores of the Black Sea. The Scythians were among the earliest peoples to master mounted warfare. They kept herds of horses, cattle and sheep, lived in tent covered wagons, and fought with bows and arrows on horseback. At their peak, Scythians dominated the entire Steppe, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to Central China and the South Siberia in the East, they created what has been called the first Central Asian Nomadic Empire, although there was little that could be called an organized state. In the future, these people would be gradually conquered by the Sarmatians, a related Iranian people from Central Asia.

In 513 B.C., Darius began his campaign against the Scythians by crossing the Black Sea at the Bosphorus Straits using a bridge of boats. On the other side, the Scythians evaded the Persians while retreating eastward while laying waste to the countryside. The Scythians also blocked wells, intercepted convoys, and fought small continuous skirmishes against Darius' army. He chased the enemy deep into Scythian lands, where there were no cities to conquer and supplies to forage. In the end, the campaign halted after a few weeks when sickness and deprivation had taken its toll on the Persian army. The march halted around the banks of the Volga River and then headed towards Thrace, where Darius ordered his general Megabyzus to subjugate the region.

Besides bringing Thrace under Persian influence, Megabyzus also conquered the neighboring Greek cities. He sent envoys to Macedonia where Amyrtas, the king of Macedonia, became a vassal to the Empire. Meanwhile, Darius solidified his hold in Ionia and the Aegean Islands.

In 499 B.C., the tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, in an attempt to bolster his position, convinced the satrap Artaphernes to sponsor a campaign against the island of Naxos. Darius gave his consent and named Megabates, Artaphernes' cousin, as commander of the Persian army. The mission was a debacle, and seeing his imminent removal as tyrant, Aristagoras chose to incite the Ionian Greeks into rebellion against the Persians. Aristagoras failed to acquire the support of Sparta, but he did manage to secure the aid of Athens and Eretria, both of whom supplied troops and ships, traveled to Ionia, and assisted in burning the city of Sardis. The Persians caught up to the Greeks during the return march back to Ionia and they were beaten at the Battle of Ephesus. This campaign became six years of conflict, during which Cyprus and the Hellespont were attacked.