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Aspathines


Aspathines on the relief of Naqš-i Rustam. Photo Marco Prins.
Aspathines
Aspathines (Old Persian Aspaçânâ): name of a courtier of the Persian king Darius I the Great (522-486 BCE). 

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Aspathines was the son of Prexaspes, an important official at the court of king Cambyses (530-522), who added Egypt to the Achaemenid empire. Herodotus tells that on a certain occasion, Cambyses killed his cupbearer, who was a son of Prexaspes (Histories 3.34-35). If Herodotus is right, this cupbearer was an older brother of Aspathines. However, we know from the Behistun inscription that the father of Aspathines was called Vakauka.

In March 522, a Magian named Gaumâta seized power in Persia, saying that he was Cambyses' brother Smerdis, who had secretly been killed (by Prexaspes, according to Herodotus). Immediately, Cambyses advanced to the usurper, but he died of natural causes; the false Smerdis was able to rule for several months. One of his victims was Prexaspes, who knew too much.

Seven Persian noblemen came together to avenge Cambyses; their leader was Darius, who was a member of the royal family, the Achaemenids. Aspathines was one of the seven, according to Herodotus, who tells this about their assault on the false Smerdis and his brother:

So when they saw that the eunuchs had been attacked and were crying aloud, they ran back both of them, and perceiving that which was being done they turned to self-defense: and one of them got down his bow and arrows before he was attacked, while the other had recourse to his spear. Then they engaged in combat with one another; and that one of them who had taken up his bow and arrows found them of no use, since his enemies were close at hand and pressed hard upon him, but the other defended himself with his spear, and first he struck Aspathines in the thigh, and then Intaphrenes in the eye; and Intaphrenes lost his eye by reason of the wound, but his life he did not lose. These then were wounded by one of the Magians, but the other, when his bow and arrows proved useless to him, fled into a bedchamber which opened into the chamber of the men, intending to close the door; and with him there rushed in two of the seven, Darius and Gobryas. And when Gobryas was locked together in combat with the Magian, Darius stood by and was at a loss what to do, because it was dark, and he was afraid lest he should strike Gobryas. Then seeing him standing by idle, Gobryas asked why he did not use his hands, and he said: 'Because I am afraid lest I may strike thee': and Gobryas answered: 'Thrust with thy sword even though it stab through us both.' So Darius was persuaded, and he thrust with his danger and happened to hit the Magian.
[translated by G. C. Macaulay]
So far the story as told by Herodotus. From the Behistun inscription, we know that the seven conspirators killed the usurper on 29 September 521 BCE. There is one difference, however: when we read the names of the seven noblemen in section 68 of the inscription, we do not encounter the name Aspathines. (Herodotus has the other six names right.)

We may assume that the mistake was made by Herodotus' Persian spokesman: the 'real' Aspathines (or Aspaçânâ, to use his Persian name) was a very important courtier. He is mentioned as the king's vaçabara in an inscription from Naqš-i Rustam, where king Darius was buried (DNd). Although we do not know what a vaçabara had to do (cup-bearer? quiver-bearer?) we know for certain that this was a very important function. The only other courtier who deserved to be mentioned on Darius' tomb, was Gobryas, the king's lance carrier. Together with Gobryas, Aspathines was the most important man in the Achaemenid empire, after the king and the crown prince.

This is remarkable, because he did not belong to the Persian elite, which consisted of the families of the seven conspirators. Maybe, he and his family were admitted to the seven Persian noble families after the fall of Intaphrenes?

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Seal of Aspathines, found at Persepolis. From H. Koch, Es kündet Dareios der König (1992).
Aspathines' seal (©!!!; from H. Koch, Es kündet Dareiosder König, 1992)

Aspathines seems to have been the successor of Pharnaces as the chief economic official of the Achaemenid empire; cuneiform tablets from Persepolis tell us that he survived Darius and was still alive in 483.

Aspathines had a son Prexaspes, who served as an admiral on the Persian navy during Xerxes' ill-fated expedition to Greece in 480 BCE.

 
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