Who was Darius?

Darius having assumed the kingship made every effort to prove himself connected with the previous royal house, the well-beloved Achaemenians. Yet, despite this appeal to the celebrated Persian loyalty, and despite the steady support of the "seven," he had to face revolt in every quarter of his empire. Pretenders claiming to be Smerdis appeared in three separate regions, and disaffected provinces set up independent kings of their own. At one time the forces of Darius were fighting eight different civil wars at once. To a weaker sovereign defeat would have been inevitable. But Darius, with equal courage and wariness, using tact and forbearance when these seemed wisest, and inflicting the most savage punishments where he thought terror would be more effective, gradually reduced the entire empire to obedience. Then, just as Cyrus and Cambyses had done, he looked for other worlds to conquer. His earliest foreign victories were in the east, where he invaded India and must have mastered at least a portion of it, as we find its name listed among his tributary provinces.

These provinces Darius wholly reorganized, building roads, creating a sort of police force, and assigning to each province the amount of annual tribute both in money and merchandise which it was to pay into the royal coffers. The exact figures of Darius give us our first chance for accurate measurements of the wealth of the ancient world. The total imperial tax in money, which roughly equalled the tax in merchandise, was about eight thousand talents. The value of a talent approached two thousand dollars, so the money income of Darius was nearly sixteen million dollars; or if we measure by the greater purchasing power of money in those days the amount of food or clothes or service which a single piece of silver would buy, the royal income was really twenty times as great. Local officials also collected for local use a tax about equal to that of Darius.

As to the apportionment of this tribute through the empire, the largest imperial payment of money by any single province was 1,000 talents, which was charged to Babylonia, still the wealthiest as it was the oldest home of civilization. Egypt came second with 700 talents, while some of the far eastern still half-barbaric lands paid less than a hundred talents. Each charge was so carefully outlined and so regularly exacted that the Persian nobles were wont to grumble in scorn that in Cyrus they had possessed a father, in Cambyses a master, but in Darius only a haggling tradesman.

It was this Darius who in the closing years of his reign came into conflict with the Greeks, as will be fully told in their story. Suffice it here to say that Darius, having like Cyrus extended his rule eastward to the impassable mountains and deserts of central Asia, and having seen with Cambyses the impossibility of carrying Persian arms further across the African deserts, now turned to the unexplored wilds of Europe as the only remaining corner of earth. His first campaign was against those wild northern tribes, called the Schyths, who had once ravaged civilization. Crossing the Hellespont into Europe, Darius marched northward through what are now the Balkan States. The Scyths, who dwelt there fled before him. There was no battle, but his army almost perished in the wilderness.

Experience having thus convinced Darius how little was to be gained in that direction, he returned to Persia and left to his "satrap" or governor of Asia Minor the suppression of a revolt which broke out among the distant Greek cities on the coast of Asia. These having been defeated and subdued, the satrap marched into Europe to punish the yet more distant Greek cities there for having aided their Asiatic brethren. A small part of the Persian forces were defeated by the Athenians at Marathon; and Darius, having thus had his attention called to Greece, resolved to conduct in person a campaign against those rebels at Athens who had previously acknowledged his authority.

Darius died before putting this plan into execution, and the war against distant Greece was undertaken by his far feebler successor, his son Xerxes. It resulted in the repulse of the Persians. Xerxes indeed proved a shameful contrast to the three vigorous Persian sovereigns who had preceded him. Fleeing from war after his Grecian defeat, he devoted himself to a life of idle pleasure and palace intrigue. He was finally murdered by one of his creatures, who snatched at the throne, but was soon murdered in his turn.

A period of degeneracy had begun in the Persian court. One contemptible monarch followed another for over a century. Women and palace eunuchs became the real rulers of the empire. The last of these eunuchs, Bogoas, maintained himself in power for years by setting upon the throne one child after another of the old Achaemenian royal line. Each youth as soon as he showed signs of independence was poisoned, until at length one of them managed to poison Bogoas instead, and became really king of the empire as Darius third.

Darius III. seems to have been a noble and admirable king; but the reawakening of the royal line had come too late. The Greeks ever since Marathon had been studying the art of war with keen intelligence; the Persians, brave and daring but unguided and untrained, still fought as in the earlier centuries, or rather far more confusedly than when under Cyrus they had defeated the Greek allies of Lydia or under Darius I. had conquered the Greek cities of Asia. Greek soldiers had now become as superior to the Persians as once the Persians had been to them. Darius ascended the throne in the same year that Alexander the Great assumed power in Greece; and Alexander conquered the Persian empire.

Twice defeated by Alexander, Darius fled and was assassinated by one of his generals who sought to curry favor with the Greek victors. Alexander found his vanquished foe expiring by the roadside and soothed his dying pangs with a drink of water. The Greeks held a gorgeous feast of victory, and the poet Dryden tells that amid the feast, a minstrel reminded Alexander how utterly unreliable is fortune; how great had been the power and the empire of the Persians, and how complete was their downfall:

"He sung Darius great and good, By too severe a fate, Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen, Fallen from his high estate, And weltering in his blood; Deserted, at his utmost need, By those his former bounty fed, On the bare earth exposed he lies, With not a friend to close his eyes."

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Read about Who was Darius? in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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