Darius I: Consolidation of Empire


(After deposing the imposter, began the work of subduing the rebellious Empire)

The measures with which the new monarch inaugurated his reign had for their object the re-establishment of the old worship. He rebuilt the Zoroastrian temples which the Magus had destroyed, and probably restored the use of the sacred chants and the other accustomed ceremonies. It may be suspected that his religious zeal proceeded often to the length of persecution, and that the Magian priests were not the only persons who, under the orders which he issued, felt the weight of the secular arm.

 His Zoroastrian zeal was soon known through the provinces; and the Jews forthwith resumed the building of their temple, trusting that their conduct would be consonant with his wishes. This trust was not misplaced: for, when the Samaritans once more interfered and tried to induce the new king to put a stop to the work, the only result was a fresh edict, confirming the old decree of Cyrus, forbidding interference, and assigning a further grant of money, cattle, corn, etc., from the royal stores, for the furtherance of the pious undertaking. Its accomplishment was declared to be for the advantage of the king and his house, since, when the temple was finished, sacrifices would be offered in it to “the God of Heaven,” and prayer would be made “for the life of the king and of his sons.” Such was the sympathy which still united pure Zoroastrianism with the worship of Jehovah. But the reign, which, so far, might have seemed to be auspiciously begun, was destined ere long to meet opposition, and even to encounter armed hostility, in various quarters. In the loosely organized empires of the early type, a change of sovereign, especially if accompanied by revolutionary violence, is always regarded as an opportunity for rebellion.

 Doubt as to the condition of the capital paralyzes the imperial authority in the provinces; and bold men, taking advantage of the moment of weakness, start up in various places, asserting independence, and seeking to obtain for themselves kingdoms out of the chaos which they see around them. The more remote provinces are especially liable to be thus affected, and often revolt successfully on such an occasion. It appears that the circumstances under which Darius obtained the throne were more than usually provocative of the spirit of disaffection and rebellion. Not only did the governors of remote countries, like Egypt and Lydia, assume an attitude incompatible with their duty as subjects, but everywhere, even in the very heart of the Empire, insurrection raised its head; and for six long years the new king was constantly employed in reducing one province after another to obedience. Susiana, Babylonia, Persia itself, Media, Assyria, Armenia, Hyrcania, Parthia, Margiana, Sagartia, and Sacia, all revolted during this space, and were successively chastised and recovered. It may be suspected that the religious element entered into some of these struggles, and that the unusual number of the revolts and the obstinate character of many of them were connected with the downfall of Magism and the restoration of the pure Zoroastrian faith, which Darius was bent on effecting. But this explanation can only be applied partially. We must suppose, besides, a sort of contagion of rebellion–an awakening of hopes, far and wide, among the subject nations, as the rumor that serious troubles had broken out reached them, and a resolution to take advantage of the critical state of things, spreading rapidly from one people to another.

 A brief sketch of these various revolts must now be given. They commenced with a rising in Susiana, where a certain Atrines assumed the name and state of king, and was supported by the people. Almost simultaneously a pretender appeared in Babylon, who gave out that he was the son of the late king, Nabonidus, and bore the world-renowned name of Nebuchadnezzar. Darius, regarding this second revolt as the more important of the two, while he dispatched a force to punish the Susianians, proceeded in person against the Babylonian pretender. The rivals met at the river Tigris, which the Babylonians held with a naval force, while their army was posted on the right bank, ready to dispute the passage. Darius, however, crossed the river in their dispute, and, defeating the troops of his antagonist, pressed forward against the capital. He had nearly reached it, when the pretender gave him battle for the second time at a small town on the banks of the Euphrates.

 Fortune again declared in favor of the Persians, who drove the host of their enemy into the water and destroyed great numbers. The distant Nebuchadnezzar escaped with a few horsemen and threw himself into Babylon; but the city was ill prepared for a siege, and was soon taken, the pretender falling into the hands of his enemy, who caused him to be executed.

 Meanwhile, in Susiana, Atrines, the original leader of the rebellion, had been made prisoner by the troops sent against him, and, being brought to Darius while he was on his march against Babylon, was put to death. But this severity had little effect. A fresh leader appeared in the person of a certain Martes, a Persian who, taking example from the Babylonian rebel, assumed a name which connected him with the old kings of the country, and probably claimed to be their descendant, but the hands of Darius were now free by the termination of the Babylonian contest, and he was able to proceed towards Susiana himself. This movement, apparently, was unexpected; for when the Susianians heard of it they were so alarmed that they laid hands on the pretender and slew him.

 A more important rebellion followed. Three of the chief provinces of the empire, Media, Armenia, and Assyria, revolted in concert. A Median monarch was set up, who called himself Xathrites, and claimed descent from the great Oyaxares; and it would seem that the three countries immediately acknowledged his sway. Darius, seeing how formidable the revolt was, determined to act with caution. Settling himself at the newly-conquered city of Babylon, he resolved to employ his generals against the rebels, and in this way to gauge the strength of the outbreak, before adventuring his own person into the fray. Hydarnes, one of the Seven conspirators, was sent into Media with an army, while Dadarses, an Armenian, was dispatched into Armenia, and Vomises, a Persian, was ordered to march through Assyria into the same country. All three generals were met by the forces of the pretender, and several battles were fought, with results that seem not to have been very decisive. Darius claims the victory on each occasion for his own generals; but it is evident that his arms made little progress, and that, in spite of several small defeats, the rebellion maintained a bold front, and was thought not unlikely to be successful.

So strong was this feeling that two of the eastern provinces, Hyrcania and Parthia, deserted the Persian cause in the midst of the struggle, and placed themselves under the rule of Xathrites. Either this circumstance, or the general position of affairs, induced Darius at length to take the field in person. Quitting Babylon, he marched into Media, and being met by the pretender near a town called Kudrus, he defeated him in a great battle.

 This is no doubt the engagement of which Herodotus speaks, and which he rightly regards as decisive. The battle of Kudrus gave Ecbatana into the hands of Darius, and made the Median prince an outcast and a fugitive. He fled towards the East, probably intending to join his partisans in Hyrcania and Parthia, but was overtaken in the district of Rhages and made prisoner by the troops of Darius. The king treated his captive with extreme severity. Having cut off his nose, ears, and tongue, he kept him for some time chained to the door of his palace, in order that there might be no doubt of his capture. When this object had been sufficiently secured, the wretched sufferer was allowed to end his miserable existence. He was crucified in his capital city, Ecbatana, before the eyes of those who had seen his former glory.

 The rebellion was thus crushed in its original seat, but it had still to be put down in the countries where to it had extended itself. Parthia and Hyrcania, which had embraced the cause of the pretender, were still maintaining a conflict with their former governor, Hystaspes, Darius’s father. Darius marched as far as Rhages to his father’s assistance, and dispatched from that point a body of Persian troops to reinforce him. With this important aid Hystaspes once more gave the rebels battle, and succeeded in defeating them so entirely that they presently made their submission.

 Troubles, meanwhile, had broken out in Sagartia. A native chief, moved probably by the success which had for a while attended the Median rebel who claimed to rule as the descendant and representative of Cyaxares, came forward with similar pretensions, and was accepted by the Sargartians as their monarch. This revolt, however, proved unimportant. Darius suppressed it with the utmost facility by means of a mixed army of Persians and Medes, whom he placed under a Median leader, Tachamaspates. The pretender was captured and treated almost exactly in the same way as the Mede whose example he had followed. His nose and ears were cut off; he was chained for a while at the palace door; and finally he was crucified at Arbela. Another trifling revolt occurred about the same time in Margiana. The Margians rebelled and set up a certain Phraates, a native, to be their king. But the satrap of Bactria, within whose province Margiana lay, quelled the revolt almost immediately.

 Hitherto, however thickly troubles had come upon him, Darius could have the satisfaction of feeling that he was contending with foreigners, and that his own nation at any rate was faithful and true. But now this consolation was to be taken from him. During his absence in the provinces of the north-east Persia itself revolted against his authority, and acknowledged for king an impostor, who, undeterred by the fate of Gomates, and relying on the obscurity which still hung over the end of the real Smerdis, assumed his name, and claimed to be the legitimate occupant of the throne. The Persians at home were either deceived a second time, or were willing to try a change of ruler; but the army of Darius, composed of Persians and Medes, adhered to the banner under which they had so often marched to victory, and enabled Darius, after a struggle of some duration, to re-establish his sway.

 The impostor suffered two defeats at the hands of Artabardes, one of Darius’s generals, while a force which he had detached to excite rebellion in Arachosia was engaged by the satrap of that province and completely routed. The so-called Smerdis was himself captured, and suffered the usual penalty of unsuccessful revolt, crucifixion.

 Before, however, these results were accomplished-while the fortune of war still hung in the balance-a fresh danger threatened. Encouraged by the disaffection which appeared to be so general, and which had at length reached the very citadel of the Empire, Babylon revolted for the second time. A man, named Aracus, an Armenian by descent, but settled in Babylonia, headed the insurrection, and, adopting the practice of personation so usual at the time, assumed the name and style of “Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabonidus.” Less alarmed on this occasion than at the time of the first revolt, the king was content to send a Median general against the new pretender. This officer, who is called Intaphres, speedily chastised the rebels, capturing Babylon, and taking Aracus prisoner. Crucifixion was again the punishment awarded to the rebel leader.

 A season of comparative tranquility seems now to have set in; and it may have been in this interval that Darius found time to chastise the remoter governors, who without formally declaring themselves independent, or assuming the title of king, had done acts savoring of rebellion. Oroetes, the governor of Sardis, who had comported himself strangely even under Cambyses, having ventured to entrap and put to death an ally of that monarch’s, Polycrates of Samos, had from the time of the Magian revolution assumed an attitude quite above that of a subject. Having a quarrel with Mitrobates, the governor of a neighboring province, he murdered him and annexed his territory. When Darius sent a courier to him with a message the purport of which he disliked, he set men to waylay and assassinate him. It was impossible to overlook such acts; and Darius must have sent an army into Asia Minor, if one of his nobles had not undertaken to remove Oroetes in another way. Arming himself with several written orders bearing the king’s seal, he went to Sardis, and gradually tried the temper of the guard which the satrap kept round his person. When he found them full of respect for the royal authority and ready to do whatever the king commanded, he produced an order for the governor’s execution, which they carried into effect immediately.

 The governor of Egypt, Aryandes, had shown a guilty ambition in a more covert way. Understanding that Darius had issued a gold coinage of remarkable purity, he, on his own authority and without consulting the king, issued a silver coinage of a similar character. There is reason to believe that he even placed his name upon his coins; an act which to the Oriental mind distinctly implied a claim of independent sovereignty. Darius taxed him with a design to revolt, and put him to death on the charge, apparently without exciting any disturbance.

 Still, however, the Empire was not wholly tranquillized. A revolt in Susiana, suppressed by the conspirator Gobryas, and another among the Sacse of the Tigris, quelled by Darius in person, are recorded on the rock of Behistun, in a supplementary portion of the Inscription. We cannot date, unless it be by approximation, these various troubles; but there is reason to believe that they were almost all contained within a space not exceeding five or six years. The date of the Behistun Inscription is fixed by internal evidence to about B.C. 516-515-in other words, to the fifth or sixth year of the reign of Darius. Its erection seems to mark the termination of the first period of the reign, or that of disturbance, and the commencement of the second period, or that of tranquility, internal progress, and patronage of the fine arts by the monarch.

 It was natural that Darius, having with so much effort and difficulty reduced the revolted provinces to obedience, should proceed to consider within himself how the recurrence of such a time of trouble might be prevented. His experience had shown him how weak were the ties which had hitherto been thought sufficient to hold the Empire together, and how slight an obstacle they opposed to the tendency, which all great empires have, to disruption. But, however natural it might be to desire a remedy for the evils which afflicted the State, it was not easy to devise one.

Great empires had existed in Western Asia for above seven hundred years, and had all suffered more or less from the same inherent weakness; but no one had as yet invented a cure, or even (so far as appears) conceived the idea of improving on the rude system of imperial sway which the first conqueror had instituted. It remained for Darius, not only to desire, but to design–not only to design, but to bring into action-an entirely new form and type of government. He has been well called “the true founder of the Persian state.” He found the Empire a crude and heterogeneous mass of ill-assorted elements, hanging loosely together by the single tie of subjection to a common head; he left it a compact and regularly organized body, united on a single well-ordered system, permanently established everywhere.


TITLE: Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World

AUTHOR: George Rawlinson

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick


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