Two thoughts on the accession of Darius I
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Two thoughts on the accession of Darius I

Darius the Great, fourth notable king of Persia, came to the throne under unusual circumstances. In the version which he tells, he was a distant relative of king Cambyses, an impostor pretended to be the king’s brother Bardiya and took the throne, and when Cambyses suddenly died it was necessary for Darius and six of his companions to slay the impostor, fight nineteen battles in a single year against rebels and pretenders, and restore order and unity to the world. This story has been preserved in one of his inscriptions at Behistun in Iran, in a damaged papyrus from Elephantine on the Nile, and by the Greek historian Herodotus. Some of my recent readings have made me reconsider my views on it.

Scholars are divided about whether to believe Darius. On one hand, Darius tells an excellent story, Herodotus accepts it despite his love of deflating the powerful and pretentious, and Darius went to great lengths to declare to his god that what he said was true. Historians don’t reject all their sources lightly. On the other hand, Darius’ story is very convenient for him, he was concerned that people would believe it, and some of the genealogical and chronological details are hard to reconcile with each other and with the inscriptions of earlier kings. One group of scholars believes that Darius invented his connection to the royal family, killed the real Bardiya, and crushed Bardiya’s followers when they rebelled against him. I have read two things recently which affect how I think about this problem.

Bruce Lincoln (“The King’s Truth” in ‘Happiness for Mankind’: Achaemenian Religion and the Imperial Project. Acta Iranica 53. Peters: Leuven, 2012) looked carefully at Darius’ words, in particular section 57 of the Behistun Inscription with his oath. “King Darius says: I call Ahuramazda to witness that is true and not lies; all of it have I done in a single year, after I became king.” As Lincoln observes, Darius does not swear that he has told the truth about his ancestry or about who he killed, and this is suspicious in itself.

Hayim Tadmor (“Autobiographical Apology in the Royal Assyrian Literature,” in Tadmor and Weinfeld, History, Historiography and Interpretation, Magnes 1983: 36-57) considered royal autobiographies as a genre in Southwest Asian literature. He observed that they normally occur after a king seized power and felt compelled to justify his actions. He only alludes to the Behistun inscription, but was clearly thinking of it.

Debate will continue as long as anyone is interested in Achaemenid history, but these two ideas make me strongly suspect that Darius killed the real brother of Cambyses for reasons which seemed good to him.

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