Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands II

For, earth-shaking though Darius’ usurpation had proved to be, it had never been his intention to turn the whole world upside-down. Just the opposite. The ancient kingdoms of the Near East, having had their last hour of rebellion, were now finished as international players; yet Darius, the man responsible for their quietus, still indulged their spectres. Brutal though the Persians could be when required, violent revolution was hardly their ideal. The new king, even as he set about constructing his new order, fitted and adorned it with the cladding of the past. A pharaoh still reigned in Egypt; a king of Babylon in Mesopotamia; a self-proclaimed heir of the house of Astyages in Media. Darius was all these things, and more. ‘King of Kings’: such was the title he most gloried in, less because he viewed foreign kingdoms as his fiefdoms — although he did — but rather because it gratified him to pose as the quintessence of royalty. All the monarchies there had ever been were to be regarded as enshrined within his person. He was the Great King.

And there was no one left undiminished. Even his former peers, even those possessed of the most famous and honoured names in Persia, even the six other conspirators, all were ranked merely as ‘ban-day — as servitors of the king. The nobility, decimated by civil war, and intimidated by Darius’ battle-hardened armies, no longer dared dispute the pretensions of royal power. Darius himself, who had not passed the first months of his reign in Babylon for nothing, moved swiftly to drive this home. At Susa, capital of the defeated Elamites, orders were given to flatten much of the old town and construct an immense new royal city, one raised in contempt of the site itself; for it was built not upon natural contours but on an artificially levelled surface, an immense foundation-block of gravel and baked brick. Darius, not content with building one new capital from scratch, then began scouting round virgin sites in Persia itself, looking to found a second and even greater one. He settled upon a location some twenty miles south of Pasargadae, a city which, although Darius continued to honour it, was too associated with Cyrus ever to serve him as his own. Darius wanted a stage that was his and his alone; and he had fixed upon a site already lit up by his glory. This was the Mount of Mercy, a name not without irony, for it was at its foot that Vahyzdata and the rebel nobles had been impaled. Now, abutting the slope of the mountain, Darius ordered the construction of a gigantic terrace, a platform with perfect views on to the killing field below, ‘beautiful and impervious’ — a fitting base for the capital of the world.

Darius named it Taarsa’, as though all the expanse of Persia were to be shrunk and maintained within its walls. And so, in a sense, it was. The king’s appetite for centralisation was insatiable. The city which the Greeks would much later call Persepolis was built as nerve-centre, power-house and showcase. Not only Persia but the realms of the vast dominion beyond it were to be unified into one immense administrative unit, focused, as was only natural, upon the figure of the king himself. Darius had not spent the first years of his reign shoring up the empire for nothing; and he was resolved never again to see it threatened by collapse. With his habitual energy, he threw himself into the most overwhelming task of administration that any monarch had ever faced: nothing less than to set the world upon a sound financial footing. This was the same challenge that had destroyed both Cambyses and Bardiya; but Darius’ talents, once again, were to prove the equal of his ambition. The financial crisis that had racked the empire in the last year of Cambyses’ reign was briskly resolved: the ramshackle system of tribute that had prevailed under Cyrus and his sons was streamlined and reformed; levies in every province, to the far ends of the known world, were carefully fixed. It was an unprecedented achievement, and one destined to endure for almost two centuries as the bedrock of Persian power. Even more than his generalship or his genius for propaganda, it was Darius’ punctilious mastery of fiscal policy that pulled the empire back from the brink. If the rising splendours of Persepolis and Susa spoke loudly of his dominance, then so too, as they glided among the building works, loaded down with parchments, tablets and tables of figures, did the bureaucrats who staffed the royal palaces. The Persian nobles, sneering behind Darius’ back, may have mocked their king as a ‘shopkeeper,’ — but the empire, and Persia’s greatness, would have been nothing without accounts.

A truth illustrated by the very fabric of the palaces themselves — for tribute receipts to the Great King were not merely the stuff of dusty archives, but of splendid and sacred drama. During his months in Babylon, Darius would have seen how much of that city’s greatness, from the fittings of its palaces to the many languages on its streets, bore witness to the scale of its vanished empire. It was only proper, then, that Susa and Persepolis, as the capitals of a dominion incalculably more extensive than that of Babylon, should have lavished on them ‘materials brought from afar’. Here, as it was designed to be, glimmered a comprehensive trumping of the magnificence of every king who had gone before. If furnishings could be reckoned the measure of greatness, then Darius, with his grands projets, had hit unprecedented heights. ‘The gold was brought from Sardis, and from Bactria, and fashioned by craftsmen here, and the precious stones that were used here, lapis lazuli and carnelian, these were brought from Sogdiana.’ So visitors to Susa were grandly informed. ‘The silver and ebony was brought from India, and the friezes on the walls, they were brought from Ionia, and the ivory that was carved here, that came from Ethiopia, and India, and Arachosia.’ And so on and on, in rolling tones of house-pride, the record of tribute or labour drawn from twenty-three territories of the empire. Never before had the details of tax returns made for quite such a dazzling show.

And what of the Babylonians, whose city had previously been the capital of the world? Their allotted task was to dig foundations and bake mud bricks. Not the most glamorous responsibilities, it might be thought; but Darius, when he came to enumerate the various subject peoples who had contributed to Susa, put the men of Babylon at the head of the list. ‘That the earth was dug out, and the rubble packed down, and the sun-dried bricks were moulded, this was due to the Babylonians — they performed these tasks.’ The symbolism was profound, and — Darius being Darius — no doubt deliberate. As he would well have known, it was the practice in Mesopotamia never to clear away the rubble of toppled monuments, but always to seal it before raising new structures on top of the ruins. A temple, for instance, even though it might tower into the heavens, would be founded on the detritus of the past. And so it was with the palaces of the Great King.

Resting on massive terraces of Babylonian brickwork, and adorned with the luxuries and treasures of the world, Susa and Persepolis might not have been the dwelling-homes of gods, but they still enshrined an imperiously spiritual vision. Where Babylon seethed with an energy that derived from its own awesome size, the capitals of the Persian monarch, modelled according to their founder’s every whim, held up splendid mirrors to the harmonies of order. This is not to say that they were wholly lacking in metropolitan character: already, even before the foundation of Persepolis, that ubiquitous banking family, the Egibis, had opened an office in the area, soon to be followed by other merchants and financiers; bureaucrats swarmed everywhere; craftsmen and labourers, transported from all corners of the world, brought their own hint of babel to the streets. But Persepolis and Susa were not, in the febrile sense that Babylon was, cosmopolitan; nor had it ever been part of Darius’ ambitions that they should be so. It did not require the Great King to emerge from his palace into a stinking mass of humanity for him to flaunt and represent his sway. The detail of a tax payment, safely logged inside an archive; the glinting on a palace door of rare and precious metals, quarried from an incalculably distant mountain range; the portrayal on a frieze of some humble tributary — an Arab, or an Ethiopian, or a Gandharan — his submission forever frozen by the pattern of the design; all these spoke with perfect clarity of the timeless nature of Persian power. Significant as the bloody practicalities of imperial rule were to Darius, so also was their shadow, his sacral vision of a universal state, one in which all his vast dominion had been imposed for the conquered’s good. The covenant embodied by Persian rule could not have been made any clearer: harmony in exchange for humility; protection for abasement; the blessings of a world order for obedience and submission. This was, of course, in comparison to the propaganda of the great empires of Mesopotamia, notably lacking in a relish for slaughter — but it did serve very effectively to justify global conquest without limit.

For the logic was glaring. If it was the destiny of the Persian people to bring peace to a bleeding world, then those who defied them were clearly the agents of anarchy and darkness. Tools of the Lie as they were, they menaced not merely Darius’ empire but the cosmos that it mirrored. Even the earth and sky, on occasions, might manifest their revulsion for the foes of the Great King. In 519 bc, one year after the suppression of the Elamites’ revolt, a fresh uprising broke out on the empire’s northern frontier, among those inveterate rebels, the Saka. Darius, leading an army against them, was betrayed by his guide, andfound himself lost and parched amid the bleak steppes. With no water for miles, nor any hint of rain, the king had little choice but to take desperate measures: climbing to the summit of a hill, he duly divested himself of his robes and kidaris, and thrust his sceptre in the ground. As dawn broke, purging the shadows of darkness from the earth, the King of Kings raised his voice in his prayer. His appeals were answered: rain began to fall from the sky; the earth was refreshed by water. Darius, gathering the accoutrements of royalty, then led his army to victory over the rebels. For the Persians, the adventure could hardly have had a more inspiring theme: it taught that there was nowhere so remote that it could not be ordered and tamed. ‘From this side of the ocean to the far side of the ocean, and from this side of the parched land to the far side of the parched land,’ Darius ruled it all.

Admittedly, unprecedented though the Great King’s reach was, it did not yet quite embrace every limit of the world. Beyond the Jaxartes, the steppelands of Asia still stretched unconquered to the remote, encircling River Rangha; in Africa, a Persian army, dispatched westwards by Cambyses, had been swallowed whole by a desert storm;[1] in Europe, across the sea from the cities of Ionia, an entire strange continent, as yet barely even explored, was waiting to be penetrated and subdued. But the time of these remote and savage lands would surely come. There could be no holding back the armies of the Great King. Order would be brought to the final strongholds of the Lie. No sooner had Darius returned from defeating the Saka than he was looking to make fresh conquests. In 518 bc, gazing eastwards, he dispatched a naval squadron to reconnoitre the mysterious lands along the Indus. Invasion swiftly followed; the Punjab was subdued; a tribute of gold dust, elephants and similar wonders was imposed. Even the great river itself was placed symbolically under the yoke: its waters were brought to Darius in an immense jar, and placed in his treasury, there to join the waters of other rivers, likewise held captive to the greater glory of the King.

It was true that there lay still further lands beyond the Indus, as yet independent of Persian rule; but even these, though not formally constituted into a province, might still be blessed by the favour of the king. All that petitioners had to do was to deliver to him a tribute of earth and water, and then, in return, they might be warmed by the light of his attention. Solemn and awe-inspiring ritual accompanied the presentation of these gifts. Supplicants, swearing their oath of loyalty to Persia, would have to do so prostrate on the scattered soil of their own land. In this way the Great King symbolised that the works of nature, as well as man, had been absorbed into his order — the better for everyone. The supplicants themselves, withdrawing from the dreadful presence of the king, could have no possible doubts as to the significance of the gesture they had performed. They had taken a step from which there could be no retreat. They had become a part, however humble, of the empire of the world.

It did not take the armies of the Great King, then, to expand the limits of Persian power. Westwards as well as eastwards they continued their advance; over sea as well as land. Around the time of the conquest of the Punjab, Otanes, Darius’ one-time rival for the throne, had been cruising the eastern waters of the Aegean. The island of Samos had been formally absorbed into the empire; neighbouring islands, as they looked to forestall the Persian fleet, began to contemplate making gifts of earth and water to the ambassadors of the King. Here, for Darius, was a development of much promise. With the rich plains of the Indus pacified, his attentions could now be turned to the opposite end of his dominion. Two continents had already submitted to his supremacy — why should not a third?

The gaze of the Great King, inexorably, began to fix itself on the West.

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  1. Pingback: Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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