The accession of Darius the Great

Comparisons and extrapolations for determining the veracity and purposes of Herodotus’s account

This essay was written in Semester 1 of 2019 for AHIS1000, Ancient Greece, at the University of Newcastle. The essay is unrevised.

Herodotus’s account of the rise of Darius details far more than the account depicted by, or more likely on the behalf of, Darius on the Behistun Inscription. There are no instances where the two accounts appear to overtly conflict, but this is likely due to the Behistun Inscription, or the same account contained elsewhere, being the foundation of Herodotus’s tale of the events (Young, 1988). However the extra information and embellishments provided by Herodotus seem to be largely unsubstantiable in nature.

Darius’s accession to the throne follows from a few major plot points. Firstly, that Cambyses, son of Cyrus and king of the empire, kills his brother Bardiya. Secondly, that the Magian Gaumata installs a monarch on the throne pretending to be Bardiya rebelling from Cambyses. Thirdly, that Cambyses dies. And fourthly, that the Persians retake the empire and Darius is installed as monarch.

Of all of these events, none appear to be in particular contention, though Herodotus’s account certainly sensationalises the pre-existing Persian narrative (Young, 1988).

Herodotus’s account of the death of Bardiya, who he calls Smerdis (“Σμέρδις”), tells a tale of prophecy and cosmic misfortune, describing Cambyses’s actions as being fooled by dreams and incensed with madness. In very much the style of Greek tragedy, Cambyses realises only after he has wounded himself mortally how his own actions have sealed the fate he sought to avoid (Herodotus, 3.30-1,64). Ctesias, who calls Bardiya by the name Tanyoxarkes, appears to give tangibility to

Herodotus’s dream messenger from Persia (Herodotus,3.30), describing the whole affair as a wilful Magian deception of Cambyses, and Cambyses knowingly allowing the planting of the fake Bardiya (Ctesias, Persika, 12.11 trans. Nichols, 2008, p.92). Whether by supernatural occurrence or political deception, all accounts including the Behistun inscription describe the affair as something of a Magian plot, which is consistent with the Achaemenid propaganda that appears to be the basis of all these accounts (Young, 1988).

Herodotus’s own account doesn’t agree chronologically with that found in the Behistun Inscription and Cetesias’s Persika (Nichols, 2008, p.27,169), which is odd considering a copy of the inscription was most likely available to Herodotus either at home in Halicarnassus or in his travels (Young, 1988). Though understandable considering it is determinable that Herodotus draws his information from oral sources rather than inscriptions, it isn’t wholly explained against the difference with Ctesias who’s Persika is also likely based on oral tradition (Nichols, 2008, p.28). However, considering the way Herodotus frames this story as a tragedy, it is appropriate for his storytelling device that, after establishing beforehand the moral shortcomings of Cambyses (Herodotus, 3.30-1), he is away from home on campaign for the coincidence to take place of being in a location of the same name as his capital when news of a man of the same name as his brother takes the throne from him, and he is wounded and destined to die (Herodotus, 3.64-6). This deviation of the established chronology for the sake of a dramatic plot device appears very much in-character for Herodotus’s style of recount.

On the matter of Bardiya’s imposter, Herodotus is again seen to embellish the events as presented more plainly by the Behistun Inscription. Along with much conversation and minor occurrences that Herodotus would not likely have tangible information of, he describes not one usurper, as is described by both the Behistun Inscription (Darius, 1.35-36) and Ctesias’s account (Ctesias, 12.12), but rather two usurpers, one with the name and likeness of Bardiya (“Smerdis” in Herodotus) and the other who appears to be the more active political agent (Herodotus, 3.61). This may simply be part of the abovementioned storytelling device. It is perhaps noteworthy, however, that the Behistun inscription mentions specifically “that Bardiya”.

This could simply be the appropriate noun case used in Old Persian in that context, and because written explicitly as such would be reflected in the translation. Though, if this is a deliberate demonstrative, it could be reasonably inferred that Darius is referring to one of multiple individuals of the name Bardiya, lending veracity to Herodotus’s account of another individual with the same name as Cambyses’s brother being the one to take the throne. Whilst Nichols dismisses this in comparison to the names Gaumata and Sphendadates (Nichols, 2008, p.27), provided by the Behistun Inscription and Ctesias respectively, Herodotus’s story overtly refers to two Magians

(Herodotus, 3.61), the other of which could be the individual referred to as Gaumata and Sphendadates, separate from the hypothetical Magian Bardiya. The Cross-referencing of multiple translations and utilisation of an Old Persian Grammar to undertake a morphological analysis of this phenomenon, in order to confirm this hypothesis, is unfortunately outside the scope of this paper. If this were true, however, it would attribute significantly to the veracity of the oral sources Herodotus’s account is based on.

This is in conflict with Darius’s clear reference to Gaumata as the individual who claims to be Bardiya (Darius, 1.35-43). Whilst it is possible that this is simply a product of Persian propaganda to cover up embarrassment of the shortcomings of the Achaemenid family, particularly if Ctesias’s story of Cambyses’s deception is to be believed, this is ultimately undeterminable without some more in-depth analysis that is out of the scope of this paper.

There is no particular ontological controversy around the death of Cambyses. There is some minor discrepancy in the manner of his death, whether it is with a knife when whittling (Ctesias, 12.14), or by his sword through his scabbard that comes undone (Herodotus, 3.64). Both of these are minor anecdotal variations that confirm the Behistun Inscription’s unenlightening “Cambyses died by his own hand” (Darius, 1.43), but Herodotus’s spectacular variation of events can be discounted as the abovementioned plot device to reinforce the tragedy befalling a wicked character. This wickedness itself reasonably discounted as slander (Olmstead, 1948, p.89).

Herodotus’s accounts of the Achaemenid conspiracy that brings Darius to power is where the uncertainties in his sources, rather than just his story-telling flair, really start to stack up. The only correlation of Herodotus’s version of events and the Behistun Inscription, is simply the fact that Darius successfully killed the Magian with the help of others, though Darius attributes his victory largely to being delivered to him by divine right. The remaining details Herodotus can have only yielded from oral sources (Nichols, 2008, p.28) or his own concoctions for the sake of narrative. The determination of which occurrences are which of these with a particular degree of certainty is a mountainous task outside the scope of this paper, but a comparison can at least be made against Ctesias.

The list of Darius’s co-conspirators varies across the years between the original Behistun Inscription, a later form of the inscription, Herodotus, and Ctesias. The changes of inscription reasonably reflect a change in propaganda, whereas the differences between written and oral accounts cannot be determined with certainty, but are likely due to the political favour of varying family’s through the years (Nichols, 2008, p.29). Despite both accounts being built on oral tradition, Ctesias doesn’t detail any of the meeting preceding the invasion of the palace that Herodotus details at length, apart from that the conspirators all gave pledges to each other (Ctesias, 12.16). It’s difficult to determine whether these extra details of Herodotus’s are based on the oral accounts of people with living memory of the incident that would possibly fall out of oral circulation by the time of Ctesias 50 years later, or whether and to what extent they are fabrications of Herodotus to tell a story with satisfying narrative.

It may be that Herodotus fabricates this particular tale to highlight the deceptive attitude that he and his audience would likely have regarded as immoral, which would be in line with his portrayals of Croesus as an indulgent man without perspective (Herodotus, 1.30-33), and Cambyses as a rash and wrathful fool (1.25,29-32,34-35,60-64), plausibly implying that a Persian such as Darius may only succeed through trickery and deception.

Similarly, no account is given by Ctesias of the discussion around the agreement that was made after the defeat of the Magian Bardiya apart from that matter of the horse (Ctesias, 12.17), whilst Herodotus portrays the conspirators speaking at length in regards to the merits of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. It is interesting that Herodotus gives two accounts as to the matter of the horse (Herodotus, 1.86-7), first an occurrence of great supernatural impact and secondly one of such mundanity as to be laughable. These are likely both anecdotes that would have been circulated through Persian oral tradition, both being satisfying in contrast of each other to mention even in aside.

The wider-reaching socio-political ramifications of these events are also felt differently in

Herodotus’s and Darius’s accounts. Whilst Darius describes the restoration of estates to their rightful owners (Darius, 1.61-71), Herodotus describes the populace’s general approval of the Bardiya pretender’s rule, with the exception of the Persians (Herodotus, 3.67). This could be reflective of a Persian bias on Darius’s part or an anti-Persian bias on Herodotus’s part. Extrapolating from Darius’s use of terminology in describing these ‘people’, in addition to the high-standing of all of Darius’s co-conspirators, a socio-economic component can be reasonably inferred (Young, 1988). This explains Herodotus’s description of the affair to some extent, considering his very democratically-minded bias. It is also plausible, considering Herodotus appears to yield his information of these events from oral sources (Nichols, 2008, p.28), that Herodotus simply gets this lower socio-economic view from people of that class in the Persian cities that he visits through his travels.

Overall, Herodotus’s account of the accession of Darius is clearly based in oral tradition, the verasity of which is difficult to ascertain against other ancient sources, though Ctesias corroborates some details. It is evident that much of Herodotus’s liberties taken are for the effect of story-telling and ought to be regarded as such reserved for the exposure of more in-depth analysis.


Darius. Behistun Inscription. Translation at

Herodotus. The Histories. Translation at

Nichols, A. (2008). The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction. Florida: University of Florida.

Olmstead, A. T. (1948). History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from f

Young, Jr., T. (1988). The consolidation of the empire and its limits of growth under Darius and Xerxes. In J. Boardman, N. Hammond, D. Lewis, & M. Ostwald (Eds.), The Cambridge

Ancient History (The Cambridge Ancient History, pp. 53-111). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521228046.003. Retrieved from

Feature image: Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran). Hara1603 from Wikipedia (source).

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