Persia: Darius I and His Immediate Successors

Darius I and His Immediate Successors

The dynamic new state was, however, troubled almost from the start by dynastic troubles. Cambyses II, son of Cyrus, did away with Smerdis, another son of Cyrus, in order to have unchallenged power, but when Cambyses was absent on a successful raid into Egypt, an imposter claiming to be Smerdis appeared, and usurped the throne. A civil war ensued, and after Cambyses died, a new claimant, Darius I, appeared against the false Smerdis and made his claims good. After putting down disorders, Darius molded the administration of the empire into a centralized system that was remarkable for its efficiency. Satraps, or governors, were set up to rule firmly and arbitrarily over the various regions, but to keep check on the satraps, who were potential aspirants to central power, each was accompanied by a secretary and a military commander who were responsible to the great king alone. This centralized system was supported by an intricate and excellent system of communication, for the Persians were the first important ancient people to use the horse efficiently for communication and transport.

Darius also continued and broadened Cyrus' policy of encouraging the local cultures within the empire, allowing the people to worship their own gods and to follow their own customs so long as their practices did not conflict with the necessities of Persian administration. Despite this tolerance there were rebellions by the Egyptians, Lydians, and Babylonians, all of which Darius ruthlessly suppressed. The religion of Persia itself was Zoroastrianism, and the unity of Persia may be attributed in part to the unifying effect of that broadly established faith. Darius was also a patron of the arts, and magnificent palaces standing on high terraces beautified the capitals of Susa and Persepolis (see Persian art and architecture). His conquests to the east extended Persian rule beyond the Arius (Hari Rud) River into modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Egypt had already been attacked by Cambyses, and although it was to prove recalcitrant and rebellious, succeeding Persian kings were to maintain hegemony there. Darius pushed as far north as the Danube in his exploits, but the fighting against the Scythians was obscure and certainly unfruitful.

Even more unprofitable for Persia was its embroilment with the Greeks. The Persians in taking over Lydia had come into contact with the Greek colonies in Asia Minor (Ionia). There were Greeks (notably the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias) at the court of Darius, and the Persians immediately began to borrow from Greek art and thought, as they did from all advanced cultures to the enrichment of Persia. At the beginning of the 5th cent. b.c., however, the Ionian cities were involved in trouble with the great king. Darius put down their rebellion, then organized an expedition to punish the city-states in Greece proper that had lent aid to the rebellious cities. This expedition began the Persian Wars. Ultimately Darius' army was defeated at Marathon, and his son Xerxes I, who succeeded to the throne in 486 b.c., fared no better at Salamis. The Greeks had successfully defied the power of the great king.

The effects of the Greek victory were, however, confined to Greece itself and had no consequences in Persia. Nor did the Greek triumph exclude Persia from taking part in the affairs of the Greek world. Persian influence was strong, and Persian gold was poured out to aid one Greek city-state or another in the interminable struggle for power. It is noteworthy that when Themistocles, the victor of Salamis, was exiled from Athens, he took refuge at the court of Artaxerxes I, who had succeeded Xerxes I in 464 b.c.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient History, Middle East