Darius I, or Darius the Great, consolidated the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus II. We know more about Darius than any other of the kings of the Persian Empire since we have two major literary sources on his life.
The first is an inscription at Behistun in modern-day Iran that Darius had carved into a mountain rock face high up above one of the key trade routes from Mesopotamia to the Iranian high plateau. It describes how in the early years of Darius’s reign he reestablished the empire after the rebellions following the death of Cambyses II. The second source is the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 480–c. 429 b.c.e.), a Greek who wrote describing the expansion of the Persian Empire from Cyrus to Xerxes I.
Darius was born about 550 b.c.e., son of Hystaspes, who was later the satrap of Parthia. Our first reference to Darius is as an officer in Cambyses II’s Egyptian army of occupation. On Cambyses’ death early in 522 b.c.e. Darius went straight to Media to press his claim to the throne through a common great-great-grandfather with Cambyses, Achaemenes. In the fall of 522 b.c.e. Darius, with six coconspirators, killed the usurper claimant Gaumata, and to consolidate his claim soon thereafter married two of Cyrus’s daughters, and one of his granddaughters, in addition to taking three other wives.
However, Darius’s claim was not easily accepted, and there was unrest throughout the empire. In the Behistun inscription Darius speaks of rebellions in more than half of the satrapies of the empire, including in the greatest city of the day—Babylon. Unlike Cyrus who was welcomed almost as the savior of Babylon, Darius was looked on differently and only subdued Babylon after a siege and punishment by execution of 3,000 of the surviving leading citizens. Even then a second rebellion took place in Babylon some years later. It took until December 521 b.c.e. for all of the rebellions in other parts of the empire to be stamped out, and another few years before the empire was totally at peace.
Although Darius was successful militarily, his greatest achievement was the creation of an effective administration for the empire. According to Herodotus, as soon as peace was established Darius set up 20 satrapies, or administrative districts. In each of the satrapies he established tax systems and recruitment requirements for his armies. He also built systems of royal roads and set up along them places where a change of horses, food, and lodging could be found for those moving about the empire. With such a far-flung empire the satraps in charge of each satrapy had to operate with a significant degree of independence from the central government. However, that independence had the potential to threaten the emperor’s control, and Darius set up a system of inspectors known as the “king’s eyes” whose job it was to check on the effectiveness and loyalty of the satraps. The improved road system and the construction of massive military granaries allowed for a large army and for the army to move about the empire with relative ease. In addition, Darius built a canal, completed in 498 b.c.e., connecting the Nile with the Red Sea, and thereby the Persian Gulf, which allowed trade by ship to go on across the width of the empire.
The building of roads also benefi ted trade and building projects in that materials could be more easily brought from distant parts of the empire to the place of construction. Palace cities were built in Susa and at Persepolis, the new Persian capital, and the construction of both probably benefited from the increased access to materials from other parts of the empire. Even today the ruins of Persepolis suggest something of its former glory as the ceremonial capital of the empire. Each spring the most important of the rites, the New Year Ceremony, was enacted in Persepolis, and annual tribute was received from ambassadors representing every part of the empire.
Darius followed Cyrus’s example with a religious policy tolerant of a wide variety of gods. By way of example, in September 518 b.c.e. Darius visited Egypt, and Egyptian inscriptions record how he gave precious gifts to the key temples and paid homage to many of the most important gods. Similarly, we have evidence of his offering sacrifices to Babylonian and Elamite gods and to the Greek god Apollo, who, as a god of wisdom, was taken as the Greek counterpart of the Persian high god Ahuramazda. His religious policy is also illustrated by the case of the Jews who had been promised funds by Cyrus to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Opposition by the Samaritans had prevented this, and the Bible records how the Jews petitioned Darius to look through the palace archives to find Cyrus’s original decree and thereby to prove the legitimacy of their project. Darius found the decree and gave his permission for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple, which began in 515 b.c.e.
In 499 b.c.e. the Greek cities in Asia Minor rebelled, and it took fi ve years for the Persians to regain control of the region. In 490 b.c.e. Darius sent out another expedition, this time against the European part of the Greek-speaking world. The Persians captured a number of Greek islands and then landed at Marathon, some miles from Athens. The famous Battle of Marathon, though paraded by the Greeks as their victory, was not a full one since from that time on the Persians controlled the Aegean Sea and set this as their westernmost boundary. In November 486 b.c.e. Darius died at the age of 64. Starting with a loose collection of provinces, he had created a strong and well-organized empire to hand on to his successor Xerxes, the eldest son of his first wife.