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Darius the Great: 9. Death

Darius I (Old Persian Dârayavauš): king of ancient Persia, whose reign lasted from 522 to 486. He seized power after killing king Gaumâta, fought a civil war (described in the Behistun inscription), and was finally able to refound the Achaemenid empire, which had been very loosely organized until then. Darius fought several foreign wars, which brought him to India and Thrace. When he died, the Persian empire had reached its largest extent. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.

Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
The last letter from Babylon that is dated to the reign of Darius was written on 17 November 486, and the first one from the reign of his son and successor Xerxes on 1 December. In the two weeks between these dates, Darius died, after thirty days of illness, about sixty-four years old. He had been a great king, as even his Athenian enemies admitted. Thirteen years after his death, the tragic poet Aeschylus evoked the days of Darius as the golden age of Persia.note.

The body of the king of kings was balmed, placed in a coffin and transported to Naqš-i Rustam, where his tomb had been prepared a long time ago. According to Ctesias of Cnidus, Darius' eunuch Bagapates had guarded Darius' tomb for seven years before the great king died, which suggests that it was finished in 493. Because the inscription mentions the conquest of Macedonia, it may have been a year later. Artistic conventions, however, suggest a much earlier date.

Like the Behistun inscription, the tomb text at the tomb of Naqš-i Rustam is a rather stereotypical autobiography and it is interesting to see how Darius wanted to be remembered. In the upper part, he summarizes his reign and recalls the confused early days and his conquests:

Tomb of Darius the Great, upper relief
Tomb of Darius the Great, upper relief
Ahuramazda, when he saw this earth in commotion, thereafter bestowed it upon me, made me king; I am king. By the favor of Ahuramazda I put it down in its place; what I said to them [my subjects], that they did, as was my desire.

If now you shall think that "How many are the countries which King Darius held?" look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne, then shall you know, then shall it become known to you: the spear of a Persian man has gone forth far; then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia.

The tomb of Darius the Great (with a Sasanian relief of Bahram II)
The tomb of Darius the Great (with a Sasanian relief of Bahram II)
The Lower inscription is more personal.

I am a friend of the right. Of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak.       
The right, that is my desire. To the man who is a follower of the lie I am no friend. I am not hot-tempered. What things develop in my anger, I hold firmly under control by my thinking power. I am firmly ruling over my own impulses.
What a man says against a man, that does not convince me, until I hear the sworn statements of both.
My body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles. [...] I am skilled both in hands and in feet. A horseman, I am a good horseman. A bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. A spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback. These skills that Ahuramazda set down upon me.

This text became an Achaemenid 'classic' and was copied by Darius' son and successor Xerxes in what is now known as the Harem inscription. Yet, before these sentiments became stereotypical, they were original and sincere, and this is how Darius wanted to remembered.

Central Relief of the North Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis, now in the Archaeological Museum in Tehran (Iran).
Central Relief of the North Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis, now in the Archaeological Museum in Tehran (Iran).
Darius had at least six daughters and twelve sons. Only one of them could succeed him: Xerxes, the oldest son of his first wife Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. His succession had been carefully prepared. As early as 495, a frieze showing the king and the crown prince had been placed near the northern stairs of the Audience hall (Apadana) of Persepolis, where everyone who came to celebrate the New Year's festival could see the intended successor. (The frieze was later brought to the Treasury, where it was excavated.)

Nobody objected, and when Darius died, there were no rebellions comparable to those at the end of the reign of Cambyses. Admittedly, there was some unrest in Egypt and Babylonia, but no full-scale civil war.

Darius had inherited a loosely organized kingdom. He left behind an empire that was well-organized and strong. Even when the Achaemenid empire was, after almost two centuries, subdued by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, it survived in another form: the Seleucid kings controlled more or less the same realms with an almost identical administrative organization. They were not Darius' only pupils: during the reign of Xerxes, the Athenians, those archenemies of Persia, had started to copy several institutions invented by Darius, which is probably the ultimate compliment.

This page was created in 1999; last modified on 11 April 2014.