Darius the Great: Biography, Quotes & Facts

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  • 0:01 Darius the Great
  • 0:54 Becoming the King
  • 3:41 Being the King
  • 5:27 Death of a King
  • 6:08 Quotes
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Darius the Great, the ruler of the Persian Empire at its greatest height, in this lesson. Discover how the son of a governor became the king of the greatest empire of its time and learn about his influence on the Persians.

Darius the Great

Darius the Great was the ruler of the Persian Empire from 521 to 486 B.C.E. Darius was the third ruler of the Achaemenid Dynasty, a family group that ruled the Persian Empire for over 200 years. The Persian Empire began with Cyrus the Great, who began his rule in 559 B.C.E. Cyrus was a great military commander who slowly conquered all the peoples neighboring his kingdom, and unified the Iranian peoples under one ruler for the first time. By the end of his rule, the Persian Empire stretched from eastern Iran to the coast of Anatolia. Cyrus' successor, his son Cambyses, continued the tradition of Persian expansion and conquered Ancient Egypt.

Becoming the King

Darius did not begin his life as the heir to the throne of the mighty Persian Empire. Darius was the son of one of Cyrus' satraps, governors appointed by the ruler to oversee the affairs of the territory while the ruler was absent, often because he was busy acquiring new territory. There are two existing accounts of how Darius, the son of a wealthy and powerful satrap, took the Persian throne. According to Darius himself, Cambyses, the ruler of Persia, killed his brother and heir, Bardiya, but for obvious reasons kept the murder a secret. However, when Cambyses was away in battle, another man named Gaumata appeared and began calling himself Bardiya.

With the king away in battle the new 'Bardiya' incited the Persian people to rebellion against their king. Darius, who had acted as a lance bearer for Cambyses, realized that this new revolutionary was an imposter and led a group of allies that killed Gaumata. During this upheaval Cambyses died, and Darius took the throne of Persia. According to Greek historians, Darius came to the throne in a much more underhanded way. Herodotus, one of the best known Greek historians, wrote that Darius was merely one of several Persian elites who gathered together to remove the false Bardiya and bring order to the realm after the death of Cambyses.

According to Herodotus, the group decided to allow the gods to choose the next ruler of the Persian Empire. Each nobleman would be represented by his horse and the first horse to neigh would become the new king. On the day of the test Darius' groom found a mare, a female horse, and rubbed his hands on her genitals. When all the horses were gathered, the groom rubbed his hands on the nose of Darius' stallion, or male horse. Believing a lovely mare was near, the stallion neighed and began to fidget around, looking for the female. The Persians believed that the gods had spoken through the stallion and Darius became king as a result of his groom's trickery.

Like Herodotus, modern historians have questioned how Darius ascended to the throne and some now believe that the story of the imposter was a falsehood invented by Darius to make his movement to the throne more heroic. Some believe that there was no imposter and that Darius killed the true heir to the throne, Bardiya, after Cambyses died. Others allege that Darius killed Cambyses, as well. With the great distance of over a thousand years, we may never know for sure how Darius became a king.

Being the King

However he came to the throne, Darius was a remarkable king. Under his rule the Persian Empire expanded even further than it had under his predecessors. By the end of his rule, the empire included Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Iran, and western India.

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