Ancient Near East - Darius I

Updated: Sep 8

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