How he became king (522 BC)

Sources of information

The most important source is his own account, inscribed in several languages and set up around the vast territory that he controlled. One version, at Bisitun in western Iran, is perfectly preserved, and is a popular tourist attraction (despite being on an almost inaccessible rock face 300 feet above the road). Herodotus mostly follows Darius' version of events. But was Darius, like many winners, able to write history to suit himself? Many recent historians think so.

Version 1. What probably happened

Cyrus had had two sons. He'd made Cambyses king, and entrusted him with continuing his policies – principally to eliminate the threat from Egypt. His younger son, Bardiya (called Smerdis by Herodotus) was given a large amount of territory to rule as he pleased.

But while Cambyses was away in Egypt, Bardiya seized power and made himself king. Cambyses hurried back to deal with the situation, but died on the way (Cambyses had no son). But very soon a group of seven Persian nobles assassinated Bardiya, and one of them was made king. His name was Darius, and he claimed to be related to Cyrus. Chaos followed throughout Persian territory, but Darius ruthlessly and efficiently crushed the various revolts and managed to consolidate his power. After this he was even able to add to the empire – in the east much of present-day Pakistan, and in the west, parts of northern Greece and some of the islands in the Aegean.

Version 2. What Darius wanted people to believe happened

Cambyses had his brother Bardiya murdered, and installed an impostor (a Magus called Gaumata) on the throne in his place. This impostor looked exactly like Bardiya, so nobody noticed! Only Darius knew the truth. Then Cambyses left for Egypt. After Cambyses' death, he continued to rule. When the people did find out, they were too scared of Bardiya/Gaumata to do anything. Then thanks to the help of the god Ahura Mazda, Darius and a few loyal friends killed the impostor. Darius was made king, and the true rulers (the family of Cyrus) were restored to power. Darius then crushed rebellions in Persia, Elam, Media, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia and Scythia.

We can't know for sure which version is true. We can only try and decide which one is more likely! If Darius was related to Cyrus, it was very distantly. He seemingly discovered a common ancestor of both of them, Achaemenes. This Achaemenes is not mentioned by Cyrus, but Darius from now on refers to himself, Cyrus and Cambyses as Achaemenids – descendants of Achaemenes.

The Bisitun inscription

The Bisitun inscription

Darius, the large figure, is trampling on a fallen figure [presumably the impostor] while he passes judgment on a line of rebels, yoked together with a rope around their necks. The power of the god Ahura Mazda hovers above. All round is Darius' account of his achievements in Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Photo AMW

The Bisitun inscription begins:

I am Darius, the great king, king of kings, king in Persia, king of nations, son of Vishtaspa, grandson of Arshama, an Achaemenid.

Darius the king proclaims: my father is Vishtaspa (Hystaspes), his father is Arshama (Arsames), Arshama's father is Ariaramna (Ariaramnes), Ariaramna's father is Chishpish (Teispes), Cishpish's father is Hakhaimanish (Achaemenes). [Greek names in brackets]

Darius the king proclaims: for this reason we are called the Achaemenids. From long ago we are noble. From long ago we are royal.

Darius the king proclaims: Eight of our family were kings before: I am the ninth; nine kings are we in succession.

Darius the king proclaims: By the favour of Ahura Mazda, I am king; Ahura Mazda gave me the kingship.

The reference to Ahura Mazda is something new. Cyrus had asked for the favour of the Babylonian god Marduk, and believed he had helped him conquer Babylon. The many references by Darius to the help he had from Ahura Mazda show that he had a new god to guide and protect him.

Darius the king proclaims: These are the peoples who obey me; by the favour of Ahura Mazda, I was their king: Persia, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, Lydia, Ionia, Media, Armenia … [and 13 others] in all twenty-three peoples.

Darius the king proclaims: Among these peoples, the man who was loyal, him I rewarded; he who was faithless, I punished; by the favour of Ahura Mazda these peoples respected my law; they acted in accordance with what was said to them by me …

Darius the king proclaims: This is what was done by me after I became king: the son of Cyrus, by name Cambyses, of our family, he was king here; this Cambyses had a brother, by name Bardiya; he had the same mother, the same father as Cambyses; then Cambyses killed that Bardiya; when Cambyses killed Bardiya, the people did not know that Bardiya had been killed; then Cambyses went to Egypt. When Cambyses had gone to Egypt, then the people became disloyal; and the Lie grew among the people, both in Media and in Persia, and among the other peoples.

Darius the king proclaims: Then there was a man, a Magus, Gaumata by name; … he lied thus to the people: "I am Bardiya, son of Cyrus, brother of Cambyses…"

Darius goes on to say how much people were afraid of Gaumata thinking he would kill many people who had known the real Bardiya. Only Darius dared to speak out, and with the help of a few men and Ahura Mazda he killed him and took away the kingship from him, restoring it to his own family.

Now can you see the weakness in Darius' story – and why people don't believe him? If no one knew that Gaumata was an impostor, how come they were all afraid to speak out against him? If no one knew it wasn't the real Bardiya, then perhaps it was the real Bardiya. And who would have most to gain by killing him?

There's a lot more that Darius has to say – details of all the people who rebelled against him, and how, with the help of Ahura Mazda, he crushed them. The picture, though, actually tells us nearly everything we need to know.

Bisitun rock

The rock at Bisitun

Herodotus' story is full of fascinating extra details – but his basic narrative seems to derive in the end from Darius' version. It's hard not to mention an example of this kind of "extra information" (about how the false Bardiya was unmasked): The daughter of a noble Persian was married to Bardiya – but she didn't know whether she was sleeping with the real one or not!

This is what her father told her:

"My child, you are the daughter of a nobleman. If your father tells you to do something dangerous, you must go through with it. If he is not Smerdis (Bardiya) son of Cyrus, he has no business sleeping with you and ruling over the Persians, but must be punished. This is what to do. As soon as you're sure he's fast asleep, feel his ears. If he seems to have ears, you know you are sleeping with Smerdis, son of Cyrus. If he has no ears, it's the impostor.

His daughter replied that this was indeed a dangerous mission. If he did turn out to be earless, and he caught her feeling for them, he would kill her. But she agreed to do it. [Cyrus had cut off the false Smerdis' ears as punishment for a serious crime]. When it was next her turn to sleep with her husband (Persian women take it in turns to spend a night with their husbands), she waited until he was asleep, and felt for his ears. It wasn't hard. In fact it was easy to find out that the man had no ears! Next morning, she told her father.