Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands I

‘Every king on earth’, Cyrus had once boasted, ‘brought me heavy tribute, and kissed my feet where I sat in Babylon.’” Darius’ own sojourn in the city, which brought him only tidings of rebellion, was marked by none of the ostentatious gestures of clemency so beloved of his predecessor. Rather, beleaguered as he was, his preference was for carefully targeted acts of savagery and retribution. So it was that the hapless Nebuchadnezzar, captured on the downfall of his capital, was denied even the right to his celebrated name. Darius, pulling a favourite trick, accused him of being an impostor, and had him arraigned as ‘Nidintu-Bel’*. Just as the corpse of ‘Gaumata’ had been disposed of with suspicious haste, now Nidintu-Bel, rather than being paraded down the Processional Way, was hurriedly and discreetly impaled. Forty-nine of the supposed impostor’s lieutenants perished alongside him — his closest intimates, no doubt. Dead men, after all, could tell no tales.

Yet the suspicions of those who lurked beyond Darius’ reach, and their continued defiance, were not so easily allayed. That winter, the capture of Babylon notwithstanding, it appeared as though the new king’s scattered and outnumbered forces might be overwhelmed. Even Persia itself had risen in revolt. Fatal though Bardiya’s division of the aristocracy into rival factions had proved to be, it had at least ensured that the cause associated with his name would survive his murder — for those noblemen who had profited from the dead king’s policies could hardly bank on the favour of his assassin. Urgently, they had banded together in opposition to the coup. Promoting one of their own, Vahyazdata, as king, they took a leaf out of Darius’ book and announced that their man was in fact Bardiya himself. To add to the superfluity of pretenders, rebels throughout Asia were similarly emerging from the shadows, laying claim to the bloodlines of long-toppled monarchs, and to the glories of vanished empires. Ancient ambitions, briefly stifled by Persian rule, began to blaze back into life. Most threateningly of all, a nobleman by the name of Phraortes seized control of Ecbatana. Making common cause with rebels in the eastern half of the empire, many of whom hurried to acknowledge him as their overlord, he proclaimed the golden days of Media reborn.

There was more to this defiance of Darius than mere nostalgia for a vanished dynasty. Phraortes was quick to boast of his descent from Astyages, but he was also heir to the same resentments that had helped destroy the Medes’ last king. The Median nobility — and the Persian too, if they wished to preserve any independence — had no choice but to oust the usurper; for Darius, decisive, brutal and charismatic, was patently not a man to indulge the pretensions of anyone save himself. Here, for the clan chiefs, was a truly agonising choice: either forgo the opportunities of global empire, but enjoy once again the smaller-scale pleasures of factionalism, or remain masters of the world, but as vassals of a universal king. This, even amid what might have seemed its death agony, was the measure of Persian greatness: that all ‘the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land’ could be shaken, and yet the great convulsion, at its heart, be a civil war.

Everywhere the deadliest fighting was between men who only months previously had been comrades in arms. Vahyazdata’s forces, striking eastwards from Persia to seize the adjacent province, found themselves blocked by its governor, who had chosen to throw in his lot with Darius; in the north, where rebels had risen in support of Phraortes, Darius’ loyalists were led not by a Persian but by. one of Phraortes’ own countrymen, a Mede; meanwhile, in Media itself, amid sub-zero temperatures and snowdrifts, clan chief fought with clan chief for control of the Khorasan Highway. By January, Phraortes’ forces were pushing hard: advancing almost to the Nisaean plain, they threatened to break through into Mesopotamia, just as Darius himself had done barely two months before. Here loomed the great fulcrum of the crisis: Darius, knowing that he could not afford to lose Babylon, yet also frantically orchestrating a war on numerous fronts, dispatched a small army under Hydarnes, one of the seven original conspirators, to hold the highway at all costs. Hydarnes, his future by now irrevocably hitched to Darius’ star, obediently retraced his steps into the frozen Zagros, and there, with grim resolution, positioned his troops to block the descent of the rebellious Medes. Although battle was duly joined, the result was a stand-off: no significant damage was inflicted on Phraortes’ army, but neither was it able to continue its advance. Hydarnes, entrenching himself before the sacred cliff-face of Bisitun, stood garrison and waited for his master.

Finally, by April, with a great victory reported against Vahyazdata, and the crushing of the rebellion in the north, Darius was ready to commit himself to the Median campaign. Leading his reserves up from Babylon, he joined with Hydarnes, and then, in a bloody and decisive battle, routed Phraortes, captured him, and loaded him with chains. Darius, having neglected to expose either Gaumata or Nidintu-Bel to public obloquy, now more than made amends. Indeed, the fate of Phraortes could not have been more gruesomely exemplary. His nose, tongue and ears were cut off; then for good measure, he was blinded in one eye. While other prominent rebels were flayed and their skins then stuffed with straw, their master was chained before the gates of the royal palace in Ecbatana, ‘where everyone could see him’, Only once his countrymen had been given sufficient opportunity to gawp at his humiliation was Phraortes, the would-be King of Media, impaled.

All done for the particular edification of the clan chiefs, of course. Certainly, the twisted corpse rotting on the spike above Ecbatana would have weighed as heavily on the nobility’s minds as its stench would have hung in the summer air. Two months later, and the Persian aristocracy were graced with the same lesson. Vahyazdata, brought to battle and defeated a second time, was duly impaled; his closest lieutenants, sentenced to the same excruciating fate, writhed upon an immense forest of stakes. Darius, stern-faced and implacable, surveyed the scene. No more pretenders would come forward now claiming to be Bardiya. The murdered king, at last, lay in his grave. Smoothly, Darius moved to annex his dependants to himself. The various female offshoots of the royal family — the sisters, wives and daughters of the man he had displaced — were swept into the marital bed. Among these was the already twice-widowed Atossa, who now, for the first time, became the queen of a man who was not her brother. What her emotions must have been as she slept with Bardiya’s murderer one can only imagine. Certainly, she is reported not to have been Darius’ favourite wife. That title went to her younger sister, Artystone — the second of Cyrus’ daughters to have given the new king a marriage-link to the past.

Not that Darius, having waded through blood to seize the kidaris, was the man to rely merely on a harem to cement his claim. Even as he staked his exclusive rights to the bloodline of Cyrus, he was loudly broadcasting the primacy of his own: ‘I am Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands, the son of Hystaspes, grandson of Arsames, an Achaemenid.’ So, with a sonorous roll, it was splendidly proclaimed. ‘There were eight of my family who were kings before me. I am the ninth. Nine times in succession have we been kings.’ Which was stretching the truth to breaking point, of course. What of Cambyses, what of Cyrus, what of the legitimate royal line? What, indeed, of Darius’ father, Hystaspes, who was still very much, albeit somewhat embarrassingly, alive? Darius, now that he had the world in his hands, could afford to sweep aside such minor inconveniences. What mattered, after all, was not what an inner circle of courtiers and clan chiefs might know, but what the empire – and posterity — might be made to understand.

Besides, the fabrications only veiled a deeper truth. By the summer of 521 bc, although there were still smouldering bushfires in Elam and Mesopotamia, Darius’ triumph was not in dispute: he had secured the throne for himself and saved the world for the Persian people. Who but a man strong in the favour of Ahura Mazda, just as Darius had always proclaimed himself to be, could have achieved such startling things? A notable symmetry had framed the arc of his exertions — certain evidence of a guidance more than mortal. It was surely no coincidence, for instance, that Bisitun, holiest of mountains, had witnessed both the execution of Gaumata and the defeat of Phraortes — the two decisive turning-points in Darius’ progress to the throne. The new king, looking to immortalise his campaign against the Lie, duly chose to do so at the scene of these stirring events. Already, even before his victory in Persia, masons had been set to work at Bisitun. For the first time ever, ‘cut like the pages of a book on the blood-coloured rock’, the Persian language was to be transcribed into written form. The story of how Darius had rescued the world from evil was far too important to be trusted to the recitations of the Magi alone. Only solid stone could serve such an epic as its shrine. ‘So it was chiselled, and read out in my presence. And then the inscription was copied and dispatched to every province.’ No one in the empire was to be ignorant of Darius’ deeds.

And yet the king, even as he proclaimed his achievements to the far ends of the earth, was already seeking to distance himself from the swirl of revolt and war. His intentions could be seen illustrated on the cliff-face of Bisitun itself, carved in immense relief next to the blocks of cuneiform. There loomed a giant Darius, crushing a prostrate Gaumata beneath his foot, while in front of him, dwarfish and tethered, stretched a line of liar-kings. On the face of the conqueror, however, there was no wrinkled lip, no sneer of cold command, only serenity, dignity, majesty and calm; as though the triumphs celebrated in the relief were, to their hero, simply ripples upon an order outside time. Here was a radical departure from the norms of royal self-promotion. When the Assyrian kings had portrayed themselves trampling their foes, they had done so in the most extravagant and blood-spattered detail, amid the advance of siege engines, the flight of the defeated, piles of loot and severed heads. There were no such specifics at Bisitun. What mattered to Darius was not the battle, but that the battle had been won; not the bloodshed but that the blood had dried, and an age of peace had dawned. Yes, the victory over the liar-kings had been a great and terrible one, and because it had proved the truth of what he had always insisted, that he was indeed the champion of Ahura Mazda, the new king had ordered its details to be recorded and proclaimed. Never again, however, would he permit himself to be shown enclosed within mere events. As universal monarch, he was now above such things. Just as Lord Mazda dwelt beyond the rhythms of the world, so had his proxy, the King of Persia, transcended space and time. History, in effect, had been brought to a glorious close. The Persians’ empire was both its end and its summation — for what could a dominion be that contained within it all the limits of the horizon, if not the bulwark of a truly cosmic order? Such a monarchy, now that Darius had redeemed it from the Lie, might be expected to endure for all eternity: infinite, unshakeable, the watch-tower of the Truth.

Except, of course, that history still persisted in its flow. In 520 bc, even as Darius’ masons were hard at work at Bisitun, the ever-fractious Elamites rose again in revolt. Darius, infuriated, promptly anathematised them in new and startling terms. ‘Those Elamites were faithless,’ he thundered. ‘They failed to worship Ahura Mazda.’ This, the condemnation of a people for their neglect of a religion not their own, was something wholly remarkable. Until that moment, Darius, following the subtle policy of Cyrus, had always been assiduous in his attention to foreign gods. Now he was delivering to the subject nations of the world a stern and novel warning. Should a people persist in rebellion against the order of Ahura Mazda, they might expect to be regarded not merely as adherents of the Lie but as the worshippers of ‘daivas — false gods and demons. Conversely, those sent to war against them might expect ‘divine blessings — both in their lives, and after death’. Glory on earth and an eternity in heaven: these were the assurances given by Darius to his men. The manifesto proved an inspiring one. When Gobryas, Darius’ father-in-law, led an army into Elam, he was able to crush the revolt there with a peremptory, almost dismissive, speed. Never again would the Elamites dare to challenge the awful might of the Persian king. Such was the effect of the world’s first holy war.

For there had been, in this otherwise obscure and unmemorable campaign, the hint of something fateful. Darius, testing the potential of his religion to its limits, had promoted a dramatic innovation. Contained within it were the seeds of some radical notions: that foreign foes might be crushed as infidels; that warriors might be promised paradise; that conquest in the name of a god might become a moral duty. Not that Darius, even as he ordered the invasion of Elam, had ever aimed to impose his religion at the point of a sword; such an idea was wholly alien to the spirit of the times. Nevertheless, a new age was dawning — and Darius was its midwife. His vision of empire as a fusion of cosmic, moral and political order was to prove stunningly fruitful: the foundation-stone not only of his own rule but of the very concept of a universal order. The dominion raised by Cyrus, having been preserved from dissolution, was now, in effect, to be founded a second time — and a global monarchy, secured anew, was to spell a global peace.