Darius becomes king

Darius becomes king of Persia, overcoming much opposition (a feat he celebrates in the Bisitun inscription). He attributes his victory to the support of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. He reorganises the empire, the postal system, the canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas, banking and coinage and much more. He begins work on a colossal new palace complex in the heartland of Persia - Persepolis. Persepolis was the setting for the Now Ruz (New Year) ceremony, symbolising the unity among the diversity of cultures and nations of the empire - still celebrated by Iranians around the world on March 21st every year.

Build up a picture of the mighty Persian empire, so wealthy and multicultural, with its 29 nationalities, its diversity of language and religion. Students should be horrified when they first hear of its destruction by Alexander. The scale of Persepolis is hard to grasp: the more pictures the better. There are a vast number on the web taken by visitors.

Darius' legitimacy is an important question still debated - through the Bisitun inscription he has control of his own history (also as Bisoton, Behistun). The addition of Achaemenes to his ancestors enables him to claim kinship with Cyrus.

Herodotus' story may be based on Darius' inscription but it's much enhanced.

Herodotus' version (paraphrased!)

Cyrus had had two sons. He'd made Cambyses king, and entrusted him with continuing his policies – principally to eliminate the threat from Egypt. His younger son, Bardiya (called Smerdis by Herodotus) was given a large amount of territory to rule as he pleased. Fearing his popular brother Bardiya might grab power while he was away in Egypt, Cambyses had him murdered, and appointed a trusted Magus as viceroy (Patizeithes).

This Magus had a brother (called Gaumata by Darius) who resembled the murdered Smerdis, and unbelievably, was called Smerdis as well. The impostor was kept out of sight - and anyone who knew his true identity was murdered. When Cambyses, still in Egypt, found out that Smerdis was apparently in charge and hadn't been murdered after all, he got the original assassin to confirm he had killed him - he revealed that the Smerdis now king was an impostor, and brother of the Magus he'd left in charge!

Cambyses headed home, but died of gangrene on the way - but not before he'd sent for the nobles of Achaemenid descent, and entrusted them with putting things right. But they believed the fake Smerdis was the real one - and that Cambyses wanted to discredit him. Fake Smerdis continued to reign and won popularity by cancelling military service and taxes for three years. Gradually one of the Achaemenids became suspicious: Otanes wondered why Smerdis was so reluctant to be seen in public. His daughter was married to Smerdis – but she didn't know whether she was sleeping with the real one or not!

This is what her father told her:

"My child, you are the daughter of a nobleman. If your father tells you to do something dangerous, you must go through with it. If he is not Smerdis son of Cyrus, he has no business sleeping with you and ruling over the Persians, but must be punished. This is what to do. As soon as you're sure he's fast asleep, feel his ears. If he seems to have ears, you know you are sleeping with Smerdis, son of Cyrus. If he has no ears, it's the impostor.

His daughter replied that this was indeed a dangerous mission. If he did turn out to be earless, and he caught her feeling for them, he would kill her. But she agreed to do it. [Cyrus had cut off the false Smerdis' ears as punishment for a serious crime]. When it was next her turn to sleep with her husband (Persian women take it in turns to spend a night with their husbands), she waited until he was asleep, and felt for his ears. It wasn't hard. In fact it was easy to find out that the man had no ears! Next morning, she told her father.

Otanes collected a group of six Persian nobles to unmask the Magi. They were joined by an Achaemenid called Darius, who claimed only he'd known all along about the fake Smerdis. Then thanks to the help of the god Ahura Mazda, Darius and the other six killed the impostor. Darius was made king, and the true rulers (the family of Cyrus) were restored to power. Darius then crushed rebellions in Persia, Elam, Media, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia and Scythia.

This is Herodotus' dramatic account. Compare it with Darius' own more austere version below. Some historians find Darius' story unconvincing. Achaemenes is not mentioned by Cyrus as an ancestor, but Darius from now on refers to himself, Cyrus and Cambyses as Achaemenids – descendants of Achaemenes. Could he have been a usurper who was himself responsible for the murder of Bardiya (Smerdis)? Certainly he was the one who gained most from it - and who had the opportunity to write his own version of events.

The decipherment

Thomas Herbert in 1677 had said of cuneiform inscriptions discovered at Persepolis: "well worth the scrutiny of those ingenious persons that delight themselves in the dark and difficult art and exercise of deciphering". But cuneiform remained undeciphered for another two centuries.

Henry Rawlinson was an English army officer, and military advisor to the Persian royal family. Inspired by the recent decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he set out to solve the mystery. Between 1835 and 1847 he managed - at great personal risk (balancing precariously on a ladder)- to copy the script and eventually work out its meaning.

Its height would help to protect it from vandalism (though it didn't stop it being used for target practice by British soldiers in WW1) ? and maybe it was intended for Ahura Mazda to read? Very few Persians could have read it anyway, as they were not familiar with the written form of the language, which was developed specifically for official royal inscriptions like this.


This drawing shows the figures more clearly. The Santa on the right is Skunkha, king of the "pointy-hat Scythians" - Darius crushed his rebellion in 519 BC. - after which he was added to the others.

Activity: Give the the students a copy of the drawing, and get them to describe accurately exactly what they see.

A very tall man with a beard is putting his right foot on someone lying underneath him with hands raised. A small man stands just behind the fallen man's head. Behind him there are eight small bearded men roped together by their necks, and hands tied behind their backs being led by in front of the tall man: the last one has a pointy hat and very long beard. Behind the tall guy there are two men, one with a spear and one with a bow. There's a strange bearded figure with, maybe, wings, hovering above.

See website: http://www.the-persians.co.uk/darius.htm/