Many people know of Darius (r. 522-486 B.C.) from events at the end of his reign - he’s the king who sent troops to fight the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C. - but fewer know how he rose to power. How Darius became king is one of the most fascinating mysteries of Persian history.
Before Darius took the Persian throne in 522 B.C., Cambyses had ruled. The grandfather of Cambyses was Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great. Confusingly, the father of Cyrus the Great was also named Cambyses - Cyrus named his son after his father. To further the confusion, the grandfather of Cyrus II was Cyrus I. We have then, in order, the rulers of Persia as Cyrus, Cambyses, Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius.
The reign of Darius I was a crucial moment in Persian history. The territories conquered by Cyrus and Cambyses were not yet integrated in a single whole; many of them had leaders who might want to reclaim their independence. Darius showed that he was capable of meeting this challenge and establishing an imperial ideology that would endure for almost 200 years.
There is a complex and ambiguous series of events which fill the time between the death of the younger Cambyses and the coronation of Darius. Cambyses seems to have died underway from Egypt to Persia, and one or more interlopers may have pretended to the throne during the interregnum.
According to Herodotus, the reason Cambyses left Egypt in early 522 to return to Ecbatana was that a pretender using the name Bardiya (also the name of Cambyses’s younger brother) had taken the Persian throne. Cambyses died on his way to deal with the pretender, and Bardiya ruled for seven months before he was exposed and killed by a group of nobles. In the wake of Bardiya’s death, Darius won the throne.
But Herodotus has one version of the story. There are competing narratives. How did Cambyses die? Was it an accident? Who was Bardiya? In Greek, Bardiya was known as Smerdis. What happened to the younger brother of Cambyses?
To get the real story behind Darius’s ascension, we need to turn to the man himself. Darius was related to Cyrus and Cambyses but not closely. His father, Hystaspes, led troops in eastern Iran for Cambyses, and Darius served with Cambyses in Egypt. In 522 B.C., Darius was about 30 years old. All the Greek accounts of his rise to power derive at least partly from an inscription he carved on the cliff face at Bisitun.
On the western edge of modern-day Iran is an impressively large carving on the face of a cliff. It includes an image and a text. Known as the Bisitun Inscription or as the Behistun Inscription, it is considered a blasphemy by Muslims because it contains an image, but for European and American scholars, it is an important historical clue.
In ancient times, the main road from Babylon to Ecbatana climbed northeast into the Zagros Mountains, curving around Mount Bisitun. On the southeast slopes of Bisitun, on a cliff face 300 feet above the road, Darius carved an inscription in 521 B.C., the year after he took power.
Although the dictates of Islam would have it destroyed, international efforts have so far protected it. The concern is that the Bisitun Inscription might suffer the same fate as the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other historic structures which have been dynamited by Islamic leaders.
The inscription’s centerpiece is a 10-foot-high by 18-foot-wide relief that shows Darius, attended by an archer and a spearman, crushing a rebel underfoot. Before Darius stand eight more rebels roped together, and above them hovers a figure in a winged disk, the divine symbol of the god Ahuramazda.
The text on the inscription is linguistically significant, because it is repeated in three different languages. This provides linguists with important reference points for the process of translation. Not only are there three distinct languages, but they come from three different groups: the Babylonian language is a representative of Semitic group; the Old Persian is a representative of the Indo-European group; Elamite is a mysterious language from neither group. Old Persian (and later forms of Persian) is a linguistic cousin to modern Indo-European languages like English, German, and Russian. Babylonian would be related to Hebrew and Arabic.
Beside and below the reliefs is an inscription repeated in three languages: Elamite, Babylonian, and Old Persian. The inscription presents Darius as a restorer, inspired by the god Ahuramazda to kill Gaumata (the impersonator who had taken the throne) and seize the kingship.
One of the mysteries is what happened to Bardiya, the brother of Cambyses. Did he, or someone else using his name, establish a brief interregnum government?
Both Greek and Persian sources confirm that Cambyses died of natural causes or an accident on his way home from Egypt. He may have killed his brother Bardiya, or Bardiya may have rebelled against Cambyses and set himself up as king. Documents from Babylonia show that a king named Bardiya did rule from April to September 522.
The mystery surrounding Bardiya is multiplied when another name appears: Gaumata. Was this Bardiya under another name? Or is this a separate individual, perhaps one who stole Bardiya’s throne? Or one who murdered Bardiya?
If Cambyses killed Bardiya, it would have been possible for an impersonator (Gaumata) to seize the throne, but most scholars today believe that Gaumata never existed. It’s likely that Darius invented Gaumata and claimed that Cambyses killed Bardiya in order to hide the real murderer: Darius himself.
Some historians believe that Darius may have obtained the throne by means of assassination. This is plausible; assassination, even assassination of family members by other family members, was common in the Ancient Near East, and is a temptation in hereditary monarchies at all times and places. While plausible, it is not proven.
If Darius was lying, that means that Bardiya legitimately came to power after the death of Cambyses. Bardiya was murdered by Darius, who invented the figure of Gaumata to divert attention from his guilt.
Bardiya disappeared, that much is certain. The lack of information about his death hints at a cover-up. An accident, a sickness, or a death in battle would be reported as such. While it is not certain that Darius killed him, it is probable that someone did. If not Darius, who?
If Darius was telling the truth, Cambyses had Bardiya killed, and Gaumata seized power and claimed to be Bardiya. Darius overthrew him, restoring the legitimate line of Cyrus. Given the evidence we have, a complete solution is impossible.
In either case, Darius took the throne, and eventually took his place as one of the most influential Persian monarchs, reigning during one of Persia’s greatest eras. During Darius’s reign, and during the reign of his son Xerxes, Persia experienced its last years of the greatness which Cyrus had started.