World History 1 58 - 4.3.2 Darius I and the Reorganization of the Empire

The events surrounding the rebellion of Cambyses II’s brother Bardiya are unclear because a handful of different accounts survive. According to Herodotus, Cambyses ordered one of his trusted advisers to secretly murder Bardiya. Since no one knew Bardiya was dead, an impostor pretending to be him launched a rebellion against Cambyses, though after several months the false Bardiya was killed in a palace coup at the hands of Darius, an army officer who claimed descent from the royal house. Afterward, since neither Cambyses nor Bardiya had sons, Darius made himself king. Other accounts differ in some ways, and some scholars have speculated that Darius invented the story about a false Bardiya in order to legitimize his own coup against the real Bardiya and take the throne.

We may never know exactly what happened, but Darius was indeed able to grasp control of the Persian Empire in 522 BCE. However, it took more than a year for him to put down the ensuing rebellions, some possibly instigated by those who refused to recognize the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. Once these had been quelled, Darius commissioned an enormous relief inscription to be made on the cliff face of Mount Behistun. It shows a dominating figure of himself facing a number of bound former rebels, accompanied by lengthy descriptions of the rebellion and, in three different languages, Darius’s version of the events that led to his rise to power (Figure 4.29). To further strengthen his claim on the throne, Darius integrated himself deeply into the royal line through a number of marriages, to the daughters of Cyrus II, the widow of Cambyses II, and two of Cambyses’s sisters.

A picture of a wall carving is shown. It is worn, chipped, pieces are missing, and cracks are visible in many places. Across the lower portion, two men are shown on the left wearing long robes, holding a spear and a bow, with long hair and long beards. They face to the right. In front of them stands a larger man in a long robe facing to the right, crown on his head, with long hair and a long beard. He is holding his right hand up, holds a bow is his left hand, and his right foot is resting atop a body lying on the ground facing him. Nine shorter figures are shown to the right standing in a line facing left with their hands behind their backs and ropes connecting their necks. They wear a variety of shirts, robes, and cloths around their waists. All have beards and one man at the end wears a tall pointed hat. A figure is shown floating above in a long ruffled robe inside a circle with some decorative lines on the sides. On the wall above the figures there are columns of worn out writing as well as across the bottom under the figures.
Figure 4.29 The massive Behistun Relief, more than eighty feet long and almost fifty feet high, shows a crowned Darius (on the left) with his foot on the impostor he claimed to have overthrown. Captive rebels and a narrative in three languages of Darius’s version of events complete the carving. (credit: “Behistun Inscription” by “Hara1603”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Darius now set about reorganizing the empire, carving it into twenty different governing districts called satrapies (Figure 4.30). Each satrapy was administered by a royal governor called a satrap, usually a trusted Persian or Median noble. Satraps answered directly to the king, had their own courts, wielded great power, and possessed vast lands within the satrapy. They often ruled from the large cities of the regions and were responsible for ensuring that their satrapy remained pacified and submitted its allotted taxes, though there were also local rulers within the region who managed affairs related to specific ethnic or religious groups. The only area not made into a satrapy was the Persian heartland, which was governed directly by the king.

A map of the Middle East is shown with Greece and Turkey in the top left corner and the northeast corner of Africa at the bottom left. The Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Aral Sea are shown in the north, the Mediterranean Sea is shown in the west, and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea are shown in the south. The middle of the map is highlighted yellow. Throughout the map, in the highlighted yellow, regions are labeled. These areas are, from west to east: Macedon, Thrace, Mysia, Lydia, Caria, Paphlagonia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Armenia, Caspians, Mesopotamia, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Babylonia, Susiana, Persis, Chorasmia, Sakas, Sogdiana, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Gandhara, Sagartia, Arachosia, India, Carmania, Drangiana, Pactyans, Utians, Paricanians, Gedrosia, Maka, and Magan. Major population centers are labeled with a “ ° ” which include: Damascus, Thebes, and Babylon. “Population centers” are represented with a “ • “ and include: Aigai, Pella, Eion, Doriscus, Odessos, Byzantion, Dascylium, Sestos, Sardis, Mylasa, Rhodos, Xanthos, Herakleia, Ikonion, Sinope, Mazaca, Tarsos, Dioscurias, Issus, Thapsacus, Sidon, Tyre, Jerusalem, Pelusium, Sais, Memphis, Cyrene, Barca, Ammonium, Hermopolis, Tayma, Opis, Uruk, Gerrha, Tushpa, Arbela, Ganzak, Ecbatana, Susa, Cyropolis, Maracanda, Merv, Bactra, Hecalompylos, Rhages, Anshan, Pasargadee, Persepolis, Farah, Arachoti, Pushkalavati, Taxils, and Sindomana. The legend indicates that “Capital labels denoted with underline.” These include: Babylon, Ecbatana, Susa, Pasargadee, and Persepolis. “Divisions of the Achaemenid Empire according to Herodolus” are denoted with roman numerals from I to XX throughout the map, starting with I in the west and ending with XX in the east. Red striped lines are used to denote “Unruly territories with limited Persian authority.” This small circular area is located in southern Turkey, south of the city of Ikonion and north of Xanthos. A red dashed line is used to indicate the “Royal road of Darius the Great.” This line begins in the city of Sardis in western Turkey and heads northeast above the city of Mazaca, then heads southeast to the city of Arbela and then ends in the city of Susa.
Figure 4.30 The Persian Empire under Darius I reached from the edge of India in the east to Libya in the west. To manage this large empire, Darius divided it into twenty different satrapies. (credit: modification of work “Achaemenid Empire 500 BCE” by “Cattette”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

Darius I and later kings had a number of tools at their disposal to keep the powerful satraps in line. For example, they frequently sent royal officials, known as the “eyes and ears of the great king,” to arrive unannounced and conduct audits, compiling detailed reports about how the satrapies were being governed that were sent directly to the king for review. If the reports were negative, the satraps could expect either removal or even execution at the hands of the region’s military garrison. These garrisons were used by the satraps to enforce the laws and maintain order, but they ultimately answered to the king and could discipline the satraps when necessary.

Communication between the satraps and the king was carried out through letters dictated to scribes and transmitted along royal roads. These roads constituted an impressive communication system that linked the many key cities of the empire with the Persian heartland and its cities, like Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae. While it was not new—the Neo-Assyrian Empire had its own network of roads that the Persians adopted and improved—it was a valuable tool for administering the large and complicated empire. Along the many royal roads of the empire were inns, resting places, and waystations with stables for horses. Safety was ensured by the troops stationed along the way, especially at key and vulnerable points. To move letters along the roads, a member of the army of mounted royal messengers would travel the roughly twenty miles to the first station, change horses, and continue to the next station. In this way, communication could move roughly two hundred miles in a single day.

The Past Meets the Present

Persia and the U.S. Postal Service

The Persian Empire required a sophisticated communications network to move messages across its vast territory, so it relied on speedy couriers who traveled roads first developed by the Assyrians and then improved. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus commented on Persian communications in his famous Histories:

There is nothing that travels faster, and yet is mortal, than these couriers; the Persians invented this system, which works as follows. It is said that there are as many horses and men posted at intervals as there are days required for the entire journey, so that one horse and one man are assigned to each day. And neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night keeps them from completing their appointed course as swiftly as possible. The first courier passes on the instructions to the second, the second to the third, and from there they are transmitted from one to another all the way through, just as the torchbearing relay is celebrated by the Hellenes in honor of Hephaistos. The Persians call this horse-posting system the angareion.

Herodotus, Histories

Herodotus was not the only ancient author to describe the Persian courier system. The biblical Old Testament Book of Esther notes that not just horses were used:

And he wrote in the king Ahasuerus’ name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, and riders on mules, camels, and young dromedaries.

—Esther 8:10 (KJV)

Even today, many still marvel at the efficiency of the Persian courier system. When the chief architect for the Eighth Avenue post office in New York City came across Herodotus’s description, he thought it perfect for a large inscription on the new building (Figure 4.31). His paraphrase of Herodotus is still visible there. Popularly thought of as the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto, it reads as follows: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

A black and white picture of the corner of a large stone building is shown. Tall columns decorated at the top line the outside of the building on the two sides shown. Rectangular windows line the top of the building and the corner is bricked with an inscription over the colonnade on both sides of the corner. An arched doorway is shown on the left side with stairs leading up to it from the sidewalk. A recessed arched alcove is seen on the other side of the corner. Stairs run the length of the building on the right side. Lampposts line the street on both sides and a road is seen in the forefront on both sides of the building. Other buildings can be seen in the background and a lone figure stands at the corner in a long black coat and hat. Some wheels and piles of dirt can be seen on the right side of the building in front of the stairs.
Figure 4.31 The unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, which once also described the Persian Empire’s courier system, is inscribed on the face of this New York City building, over the colonnade. (credit: modification of work “Post Office, New York City” by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress)
  • What purposes might the Persian courier system have served? How might the empire have functioned in the absence or breakdown of such a system?
  • Why might the chief architect for the Eighth Avenue post office in New York City have selected Herodotus’ description?

Building projects were another important expression of Darius’s power and authority. During his reign, he undertook the construction of elaborate palaces at Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae (Figure 4.32). These were constructed and decorated by skilled workers from many different locations and reflected artistic influences from around the empire, among them fluted columns designed by Greek stonemasons, Assyrian reliefs carved by Mesopotamians, and a variety of other features of Egyptian, Lydian, Babylonian, Elamite, and Median origin. The many workers—men, women, and children—who built these palaces migrated to the construction sites and often lived in nearby villages or encampments.

A picture of seven broken, brownish columns at sunset is shown. Some of the columns have decorative pieces at the top. Pedestals litter the ground. In the left background are broken double columns atop a large dark platform. The ground is gravelly and trees can be seen in the far background.
Figure 4.32 The ruins of the city of Persepolis, situated thirty-seven miles southwest of modern-day Shiraz (in modern Iran), reveal that the site was an impressive imperial center in Darius’s time. (credit: modification of work “HDR image of Persepolis, Iran“ by “Roodiparse”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Explore a reconstruction of the palace complex of Persepolis as it may have appeared to a visitor in ancient Persia via the Getty Museum’s Persepolis Reimagined interactive exhibit.

Major infrastructure projects were also a feature of Darius’s reign. For example, he ordered the construction of a long canal that would have allowed ships to pass from the Red Sea into Egypt’s Nile River and thus to the Mediterranean. It is unclear whether he actually completed it. It seems unlikely, though Herodotus insists he did. Whatever the case, that Darius attempted this massive undertaking is a testament to the power and resources the kings of Persia had at their fingertips. Other infrastructure projects included the expansion and rebuilding of the many roads that crisscrossed the empire, as well as the construction of a number of qanats (Figure 4.33). These were long, underground tunnels used for carrying fresh water over many kilometers, usually for irrigation, and represented a major improvement over earlier technologies. They likely had been used before the Achaemenids, but their construction expanded with the rise of Persian power.

A drawing of a slice of a well is shown. At the bottom left corner is a black area labeled “Bedrock.” Above it is ombre brown ground going from dark on the bottom to lighter at the top labeled “Alluvium.” A dashed and dotted white line runs from the middle left of the drawing to the bottom right and is labeled “Water Table.” In the middle right there is a thin slice of dark brown labeled “Irrigated Land.” A thin blue line runs the length of the drawing horizontally. Above the blue line on the left is a brown sloped and paneled brown wall that ends at the right with a green thin expanse that then goes to the end of the drawing. At the top left a black arrow points down to the tallest part of the sloped wall and reads “Mother Well - The main water source for the qanat.” Next to that a black arrow points to a section of the sloped wall which is slightly lower and a caption reads “Access Shaft - Permits access to the qanat channel for construction and maintenance.” To the right, a long black arrow points to the lower portion of the sloped wall and a caption reads “Qanat Channel - The qanat’s water-carrying channel.” A black arrow points to the end of the sloped wall where it meets the green coloring and the caption reads “Outlet.” A black arrow points down to the green area next to the sloped wall and a caption reads “Distribution - A network of dams, gates, and channels is used to distribute the water.”
Figure 4.33 The qanats built by Darius were designed to carry fresh water over long distances into populated areas or to irrigate land for farming. (credit: modification of work “Qanat cross section” by Samuel Bailey/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax