© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated December 5, 1998 
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Darius the Great

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Darius, a member of the Achemenides family, raised to the throne of the kingdom of Persia by taking part, in 522, in a plot to assassinate Smerdis, who had assumed the kingship that same year at the death of his brother Cambyses on his way back from Egypt. Both Cambyses and Smerdis were sons of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. Darius, on the other hand, was a remote cousin of them. The story of the plot of Darius and six other high-ranking Persians to assassinate Smerdis, who, they pretended, was not the son of Cyrus by that name, but an impostor, a Medean magus posing for Cyrus' son, who, by their account, had been murdered earlier at the request of his own brother Cambyses, is told by Herodotus in his Histories (Histories, III, 61-88). It offers him an opportunity to put in the mouth of three of the conspirators, when time comes to decide how tu rule the empire, three speeches, one in favor of democracy (Histories, III, 80), one in favor of aristocratic oligarchy, the rule by a small group of persons chosen among the best citizens (Histories, III, 81), and the last one, by Darius himself, who eventually prevails, in favor of monarchy, supposed to be the very best of all three regimes, each taken at its best (Histories, III, 82). Plato alludes to the story of the plot of "the Seven" when, at Laws, III, 695c, he has the Athenian stranger analyse past history to try and draw lessons from it, and also in the VIIth Letter, at 331e-332b, to compare Dionysius, the Sicilian tyrant of Syracuse lack of trusted friends to Darius reliance upon his coconspirators.
If Cyrus and Cambyses built the Persian empire by conquering a terrritory spanning from the Ionian coast west to India east, and from Scythia, Caucasus and the southern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas north to Lybia, Egypt and the shores of the Persian Gulf south, it is Darius who organized its administration. He moved his residence to the Elamite city of Susa, which became the administrative capital of his empire and where he had a gigantic palace built for himself. He divided his vast empire into satrapies (20 according to Herodotus, who describes their composition at Histories, III, 89-94) headed by Satraps and submitted to an annual tribute, and built roads across the empire to ease the communications required to administer such a huge territory (Herodotus in his Histories (V, 52-54) gives a description of the road leading from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, along the Ionian coast, which had become the siege of a satrapy, to Susa). He also directed the building, in his native country of Persia, of another palace at Persepolis (the "Persian city" by Greek etymology).
But Darius was not merely an administrator and, after curbing several rebellions in various parts of the empire during his first year in power, he also continued the politic of expansion of his ancestors, toward the east in India, as well as toward the west and Europe, starting with Thracia. In 499, some Ionian Greek cities of the satrapy of Lydia, under the leadership of Aristagoras of Miletus, rebelled against the Persians and set fire to Sardis. It was not until 494, with the naval victory of the Persian fleet at Lade, off the shores of Miletus, and the recapture of Miletus, that the rebellion was completely curbed. Having thus subdued the Ionian Greeks, Darius set out to conquer the rest of Greece, which led to the first Persian War. But his troops were stopped by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon in 490 (Herodotus' Histories (VI, 102-120). It was left to his son Xerxes to lead a second attempt in 480, with no more success (2nd Persian War).
Darius' reign marks the apogee of the Persian Empire, which started to crumble by the mere fact of its size after his death, until it was conquered by Alexander the Great (who entered Susa in 331).
The reign of Darius spans most of the period covered by Herodotus' Histories, a part going from the middle of book III (III, 67) to the beginning of book VII (VII, 1-4)
In the Phædrus, Plato cites Darius at the side of Solon and Lycurgus, the half legendary lawgiver of Sparta, as examples of successfull lawmakers (Phaedrus, 258c). And in the Laws, the Athenian stranger praises Darius for the way he ruled his country, but reproaches him not to have learned from Cyrus' mistakes in raising his children, and to have done the same mistakes with his son Xerxes, that is, to let him have a pampered childhood he himself didn't have, not being the son of a king (Laws, III, 695c-e). In the Menexenus, faithful to the rules of the funeral oration he is caricaturing, he exalts the power of Darius only to give more luster to the Athenian victory at Marathon (Menexenus, 239d-240e).

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First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated December 5, 1998
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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