Cambyses & Darius

Category: Achaemenids, Before Islam - Date: May 10, 2020


In 525 BC, Cyrus’ son, Cambyses, captured most of Egypt and coastal regions well into modern Libya. It was later recorded that Cambyses had quietly arranged the assassination of his brother, Smerdis, before he left. The story goes that while Cambyses was distracted in Egypt, a minor official called Magus Gaumata, who had an uncanny resemblance to Smerdis, seized the throne. Cambyses died mysteriously in 522 BC while still in Egypt – by some reports he and his entire army marched out into the Sahara on some unknown quest and not one of their number was ever seen again. With the king dead, Darius I, a distant relative, moved quickly and soon had ‘Gaumata’ murdered. This ‘justice’ was glorified in a giant relief at Bisotun, near Hamadan, where you can see Darius’ foot on Gaumata’s head. What we will probably never know is whether Darius rid Persia of the so-called ‘False Smerdis’, or whether he murdered the real Smerdis and cooked up this story to justify his regicide.

Darius had won an empire in disarray and had to fight hard to re-establish it, dividing his sprawling inheritance into 23 satrapies to make it easier to govern. The magnificent complex at Persepolis was created to serve as the ceremonial and religious hub of an empire whose primary god was Ahura Mazda, also the subject of Zoroastrian worship. The Median cities of Ecbatana and Shush became administrative centres, but Persepolis was the imperial showcase, extravagantly decorated to intimidate visitors and impress with its beauty. Darius eventually expanded the empire to India and pushed as far north as the Danube River in Europe.

It was the greatest of the early civilisations. Paved roads stretched from one end of the empire to the other, with caravanserais at regular intervals to provide food and shelter to travellers. The Achaemenids introduced the world’s first postal service, and it was said the network of relay horses could deliver mail to the furthest corner of the empire within 15 days.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. When the Greek colonies of Asia Minor rebelled against their Persian overlord, Darius decided to invade mainland Greece to make an example of those states that refused to subject themselves. It didn’t work. In 490 BC, Darius’ armies were defeated at the famous battle at Marathon near Athens. He died in 486 BC.

The subsequent defeat of Darius’ son Xerxes at Salamis in Greece in 480 BC marked the beginning of a long, slow decline that would continue, with glorious interludes, for another 150 years.