Darius I : Expansion of Empire



First Military Expeditions of conquest beyond the empire

During this period of comparative peace, which may have extended from about B.C. 516 to B.C. 508 or 507, the general tranquility was interrupted by at least one important expedition. The administrational merits of Darius are so great that they have obscured his military glories, and have sent him down to posterity with the character of an unwarlike monarch-if not a mere “peddler,” as his subjects said, yet, at any rate, a mere consolidator and arranger. But the son of Hystaspes was no carpet prince. He had not drawn the sword against his domestic foes to sheath it finally and forever when his triumph over them was completed. On the contrary, he regarded it as incumbent on him to carry on the aggressive policy of Cyrus and Cambyses, his great predecessors, and like them to extend in one direction or another the boundaries of the Empire. Perhaps he felt that aggression was the very law of the Empire’s being, since if the military spirit was once allowed to become extinct in the conquering nation, they would lose the sole guarantee of their supremacy. At any rate, whatever his motive, we find him, after he had snatched a brief interval of repose, engaging in great wars both towards his eastern and his western frontier–wars which in both instances had results of considerable importance.

The first grand expedition was towards the East. Cyrus, as we have seen, had extended the Persian sway over the mountains of Afghanistan and the highlands from which flow the tributaries of the Upper Indus. From these eminences the Persian garrisons looked down on a territory possessing every quality that could attract a powerful conqueror. Fertile, well-watered, rich in gold, peopled by an ingenious yet warlike race, which would add strength no less than wealth to its subjugators, the Punjab lay at the foot of the Sufeid Koh and Suliman ranges, inviting the attack of those who could swoop down when they pleased upon the low country. It was against this region that Darius directed his first great aggressive effort. Having explored the course of the Indus from Attock to the sea by means of boats, and obtained, we may suppose, in this way some knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, he led or sent an expedition into the tract, which in a short time succeeded in completely reducing it. The Punjab, and probably the whole valley of the Indus, was annexed, and remained subject till the later times of the Empire. The results of this conquest were the acquisition of a brave race, capable of making excellent soldiers, an enormous increase of the revenue, a sudden and vast influx of gold into Persia, which led probably to the introduction of the gold coinage, and the establishment of commercial relations with the natives, which issued in a regular trade carried on by coasting-vessels between the mouths of the Indus and the Persian Gulf.

The next important expedition–one probably of still greater magnitude–took exactly the opposite direction. The sea which bounded the Persian dominion to the west and the north-west narrowed in two places to dimensions not much exceeding those of of the greater Asiatic rivers. The eye which looked across the Thracian Bosphorus or the Hellespont seemed to itself to be merely contemplating the opposite bank of a pretty wide stream. Darius, consequently being master of Asia Minor, and separated by what seemed to him so poor a barrier from fertile tracts of vast and indeed indefinite extent, such as were nowhere else to be found on the borders of his empire, naturally turned his thoughts of conquest to this quarter. His immediate desire was, probably, to annex Thrace; but he may have already entertained wider views, and have looked to embracing in his dominions the lovely isles and coasts of Greece also, so making good the former threats of Cyrus.

The story of the voyage and escape of Democedes, related by Herodotus with such amplitude of detail, and confirmed to some extent from other sources, cannot be a mere myth without historical foundation. Nor is it probable that the expedition was designed merely for the purpose of “indulging the exile with a short visit to his native country,” or of collecting “interesting information.” If by the king’s orders a vessel was fitted out at Sidon to explore the coasts of Greece under the guidance of Democedes, which proceeded as far as Crotona in Magna Grsecia, we may be tolerably sure that a political object lay at the bottom of the enterprise. It would have exactly the same aim and end as the eastern voyage of Scylax, and would be intended, like that, to pave the way for a conquest. Darius was therefore, it would seem, already contemplating the reduction of Greece Proper, and did not require to have it suggested to him by any special provocation. Mentally, or actually, surveying the map of the world, so far as it was known to him, he saw that in this direction only there was an attractive country readily accessible. Elsewhere his Empire abutted on seas, sandy deserts, or at best barren steppes; here, and here only, was there a rich prize close at hand and (as it seemed) only waiting to be grasped.

But if the aggressive force of Persia was to be turned in this direction, if the stream of conquest was to be set westward along the flanks of Rhodope and Haemus, it was essential to success, and even to safety, that the line of communication with Asia should remain intact.

Now, there lay on the right flank of an army marching into Europe a vast and formidable power, known to be capable of great efforts, which, if allowed to feel itself secure from attack, might be expected at any time to step in, to break the line of communication between the east and west, and to bring the Persians who should be engaged in conquering Pseonia, Macedonia, and Greece, into imminent danger. It is greatly to the credit of Darius that he saw this peril-saw it and took effectual measures to guard against it. The Scythian expedition was no insane project of a frantic despot, burning for revenge, or ambitious of an impossible conquest. It has all the appearance of being a well-laid plan, conceived by a moderate and wise prince, for the furtherance of a great design, and the permanent advantage of his empire. The lord of South-Western Asia was well aware of the existence beyond his northern frontier of a standing menace to his power. A century had not sufficed to wipe out the recollection of that terrible time when Scythian hordes had carried desolation far and wide over the fairest of the regions that were now under the Persian dominion. What had occurred once might recur.

Possibly, as a modern author suggests, “the remembrance of ancient injuries may have been revived by recent aggressions.” It was at any rate essential to strike terror into the hordes of the Steppe Region in order that Western Asia might attain a sense of security. It was still more essential to do so if the north-west was to become the scene of war, and the Persians were to make a vigorous effort to establish themselves permanently in Europe. Scythia, it must be remembered, reached to the banks of the Danube. An invader, who aspired to the conquest even of Thrace, was almost forced into collision with her next neighbor.

Darius, having determined on his course, prefaced his expedition by a raid, the object of which was undoubtedly to procure information. He ordered Ariaramnes, satrap of Cappadocia, to cross the Euxine with a small fleet, and, descending suddenly upon the Scythian coast, to carry off a number of prisoners. Ariaramnes executed the commission skillfully, and was so fortunate as to make prize of a native of high rank, the brother of a Scythian chief or king. From this person and his companions the Persian monarch was able to obtain all the information which he required. Thus enlightened, he proceeded to make his preparations. Collecting a fleet of 600 ships, chiefly from the Greeks of Asia, and an army estimated at from 700,000 to 800,000 men, which was made up of contingents from all the nations under his rule, he crossed the Bosphorus by a bridge of boats constructed by Mandrocles a Samian; marched through Thrace along the line of the Little Balkan, receiving the submission of the tribes as he went; crossed the Great Balkan; conquered the Geatae, who dwelt between that range and the Danube; passed the Danube by a bridge, which the Ionian Greeks had made with their vessels just above the apex of the Delta; and so invaded Scythia. The natives had received intelligence of his approach, and had resolved not to risk a battle. They retired as he advanced, and endeavored to bring his army into difficulties by destroying the forage, driving off the cattle, and filling in the wells. But the commissariat of the Persians was, as usual, well arranged. Darius remained for more than two months in Scythia without incurring any important losses. He succeeded in parading before the eyes of the whole nation the immense military power of his empire.

He no doubt inflicted considerable damage on the hordes, whose herds he must often have captured, and whose supplies of forage he curtailed. It is difficult to say how far he penetrated. Herodotus was informed that he marched east to the Tanais (Don), and thence north to the country of the Budini, where he burnt the staple of Gelonus, which cannot well, have been below the fiftieth parallel, and was probably not far from Voronej. It is certainly astonishing that he should have ventured so far inland, and still more surprising that, having done so, he should have returned with his army well-nigh intact. But we can scarcely suppose the story that he destroyed the staple of the Greek trade a pure fiction. He would be glad to leave his mark in the country, and might make an extraordinary effort to reach the only town that was to be found in the whole steppe region. Having effected his purpose by its destruction, he would retire, falling back probably upon the coast, where he could obtain supplies from his fleet. It is beyond dispute that he returned with the bulk of his army, having suffered no loss but that of a few invalid troops whom he sacrificed. Attempts had been made during his absence to induce the Greeks, who guarded the bridge over the Danube, to break it, and so hinder his return; but they were unsuccessful. Darius recrossed the river after an interval of somewhat more than two months, victorious according to his own notions, and regarded himself as entitled thenceforth to enumerate among the subject races of his empire “the Scythes beyond the sea.” On his return march through Thrace, he met, apparently, with no opposition. Before passing the Bosphorus, he gave a commission to one of his generals, a certain Megabazus, to complete the reduction of Thrace, and assigned him for the purpose a body of 80,000 men, who remained in Europe while Darius and the rest of his army crossed into Asia.

Megabazus appears to have been fully worthy of the trust reposed in him. In a single campaign (B.C. 506) he overran and subjugated the entire tract between the Propontis and the Strymon, thus pushing forward the Persian dominion to the borders of Macedonia. Among the tribes which he conquered were the Perinthians, Greeks; the Pseti, Cicones, Bistones, Sapaei, Dersaei and Edoni, Thracians; and the Paeoplae and Siripasones, Pseonians. These last, to gratify a whim of Darius, were transported into Asia. The Thracians who submitted were especially those of the coast, no attempt, apparently, being made to penetrate the mountain fastness and bring under subjection the tribes of the interior.


The first contact between Persia and Macedonia possesses peculiar interest from the circumstances of the later history. An ancestor of Alexander the Great sat upon the throne of Macedon when the general of Darius was brought in his career of conquest to the outskirts of the Macedonian power. The kingdom was at this time comparatively small, not extending much beyond Mount Bermius on the one hand, and not reaching very far to the east of the Axius on the other. Megabazus saw in it, we may be sure, not the fated destroyer of the Empire which he was extending, but a petty state which the mere sound of the Persian name would awe into subjection. He therefore, instead of invading the country, contented himself with sending an embassy, with a demand for earth and water, the symbols, according to Persian custom, of submission. Amyntas, the Macedonian king, consented, to the demand at once; and though, owing to insolent conduct on the part of the ambassadors, they were massacred with their whole retinue, yet this circumstance did not prevent the completion of Macedonian vassalage. When a second embassy was sent to inquire into the fate of the first, Alexander, the son of Amyntas, who had arranged the massacre, contrived to have the matter hushed up by bribing one of the envoys with a large sum of money and the hand of his sister, Gygsea. Macedonia took up the position of a subject kingdom, and owned for her true lord the great monarch of Western Asia.

Megabazus, having accomplished the task assigned him, proceeded to Sardis, where Darius had remained almost, if not quite, a full year His place was taken by Otanes, the son of Sisamnes, a different person from the conspirator, who rounded off the Persian conquests in these parts by reducing, probably in B.C. 505, the cities of Byzantium, Chalcedon, Antandrus, and Lamponium, with the two adjacent islands of Letnnos and Imbrus. The inhabitants of all were, it appears, taxable, either with having failed to give contingents towards the Scythian expedition, or with having molested it on its return–crimes these, which Otanes thought it right to punish by their general enslavement.

Darius, meanwhile, had proceeded to the seat of government, which appears at this time to have been Susa. He had perhaps already built there the great palace, whose remains have been recently disinterred by English enterprise; or he may have wished to superintend the work of construction. Susa, which was certainly from henceforth the main Persian capital, possessed advantages over almost any other site. Its climate was softer than that of Ecbatana and Persepolis, less sultry than that of Babylon. Its position was convenient for communicating both with the East and with the West. Its people were plastic, and probably more yielding and submissive than the Medes or the Persians. The king, fatigued with his warlike exertions, was glad for a while to rest and recruit himself at Susa, in the tranquil life of the Court. For some years he appears to have conceived no new aggressive project; and he might perhaps have forgotten his designs upon Greece altogether, had not his memory been stirred by a signal and extraordinary provocation.


TITLE: Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World

AUTHOR: George Rawlinson

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick


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