HERODOTUS vi. DARIUS ACCORDING TO HERODOTUS

Herodotus connects the beginning of Darius’s reign with a deep break in the history of Persian royalty. He describes the rule of the Magus and palace administrator Patizeithes as an attempt at usurpation.

 

HERODOTUS

vi. DARIUS ACCORDING TO HERODOTUS

The false Smerdis. Herodotus connects the beginning of Darius’s reign with a deep break in the history of Persian royalty. He describes the rule of the Magus and palace administrator Patizeithes, as well as that of his brother, the false Smerdis, as an attempt at usurpation, which he equates with the return of foreign rule by the Medes (cf. 3.63.4, 65.6). The classification of this reign as an illegitimate one, the central figure of the false Smerdis, as well as the conspiracy by the Seven, with Darius appearing as their central protagonist, are structural common grounds shared with the Behistun inscription. This may be regarded as an important evidence that Herodotus’s report was influenced in its main points by the propaganda spread by Darius (Rollinger, 1998 [1999], pp. 189-99). Nevertheless, there are also numerous narrative elements, self-contained and equally specific in character as compositional features, that reveal Herodotus’s shaping hand (Köhnken, 1980; Erbse, 1992). Regarding the question as to how the pieces of information provided by Herodotus and Darius ought to be historically evaluated, research has continued, proceeding in very different ways. (Cf. Dandamaev, 1976; Bickerman and Tadmor, 1978; Wiesehöfer, 1978, 1993, pp. 33-43; Hampl, 1979a; Balcer, 1987; West, 1991b; Vogelsang, 1998; Briant, 1996, pp. 113-27, 924-25; Demandt, 1996; Brosius, 1996; Rollinger, 1998 [1999], pp. 175 f. with nn. 112-13; Asheri, 1999; Kipp, 2001). Herodotus assumes the reign of the Magi to have lasted for seven months, which exactly prolong the seven years and five months of Cambyses’ reign to eight years (3.67.2; cf. Jursa, 1993; Rollinger, 1998 [1999], p. 188). According to Herodotus, Smerdis developed a programmatic reign in which all subjects were exempt from military service and taxes (3.67.3). In the story about the false Smerdis, Herodotus uses all registers of his narrative art, combining an exciting tale with fabulous features (cf. Bichler 2000b, p. 279). Indeed Smerdis, who was isolated from the outside world and who not only exactly resembled Cambyses’ brother but even bore the same name (3.61.2)—and who, because Cyrus had once cut off his ears, constantly feared to be unmasked (3.69.5)—formed the crucial point of the narrative. (On the possible origins of his having no ears, cf. West, 1991b; Demandt, 1996.)

The seven conspirators. Phaidyme, the wife of Smerdis and daughter of Otanes, feels for the absent ears of her husband while he is making love to her in the dark (3.68-69); and so begins the story about the overthrow of the Magi. Otanes, the first to suspect the false king, has the central role in the conspiracy, and the circle of conspirators is enlarged in three stages. The next members are Aspathines and Gobryas (3.70.1), followed by Intaphrenes, Megabyzus, and Hydarnes (3.70.2). The last to join them is Darius (3.70.3). With the exception of Aspathines, all the conspirators are also mentioned in the Behistun inscription (cf. Bichler, 2000b, p. 280, n. 52). It is true that Darius appears there as the crucial force (DB line 13), but even in the Histories, Darius continues to acquire more importance. It is he who insists on a surprise coup (3.71.4-5) and who carries out the decisive dagger thrust (3.78.4-5). Before this happens, Herodotus raises the tension through a dramatic intermezzo. While the conspirators are discussing the matter, Prexaspes reveals his atrocious deed against the true Smerdis to the Persians, calls for the overthrow of the usurper, and hurls himself down from the palace tower (3.74-75; cf. Belloni). When the conspirators heard about this, there was disagreement among them, but again it was Darius who insisted on action (3.76.1-2). An auspicious sign given by hawks augured success (3.76.3). The conspirators killed the two usurpers, showed the population their heads, and called for the assassination of the Magi (3.79). According to Herodotus, the Persians henceforth celebrated a ritual holiday to remember this event (3.79.3). Darius is in this context presented as determined and coldblooded, seizing the leadership. At the same time, he is described as a cunning power politician, who even considered a lie as a legitimate way to get into the palace (3.72.2-3). Darius indeed argued almost like a sophist, seeing things in relative terms and acting to his own advantage (3.72.4-5; Bringmann, 1976). If we consider these statements against the background of the Behistun inscription, in which Darius almost aggressively proclaimed his love of the truth, we cannot fail to find an ironic undertone (cf. Bringmann, 1979, p. 279; Kipp, 2001). In any case, the contrast with the Persian ethos of the love of truth well suits Herodotus’s classification of Darius as a huckster (kápēlos), which he later offers (3.89.3; cf. Saïd, 1981; Descart, 1989).

The constitutional debate. After the elimination of the usurpers, Herodotus marks a further decisive point, which was defined with the constitutional debate. The future reign was to be decided by an open discussion among the conspirators. One is inevitably reminded of a Greek scenario, since there were arguments presented from the arsenal of Greek political science (Bleicken, 1979). Without mentioning the word democracy, Otanes pleaded for that type of state; above all he explained the disadvantages of despotic rule, alluding to the negative example of Cambyses (3.80.2-6). Megabyzus recommended oligarchic rule (3.81). He, too, refrained from using the explicit concept and mainly argued on the basis of a negative counter-example, which he saw in the unbridled rule of the masses. Darius finally described the advantages of a monarchy, without refuting Otanes’ arguments (3.82). Thus on the one hand a rudimentary theory of constitutional evolution is presented, which leads to monarchy as a result of the degeneration of oligarchy and democracy; on the other hand a historical argument is offered, with reference to Cyrus and the establishment of Persian freedom. The four silent conspirators agreed with Darius. Thus monarchy would prevail as victorious (Hampl, 1979b, pp. 255 ff. sees the monarchy as also the “moral” victor in the debate), but Otanes’ arguments persisted (Bichler, 2000b, pp. 283 f.). The latter gave up any claim for the kingship in return for the assurance of certain privileges. (Regarding the discussion about a possible Iranian background for the constituional debate, cf. Wiesehöfer, 1978, pp. 203 f.; Gschnitzer, 1977; Briant, 1984. See also Pelling, 2002.)

Horse oracle and marriage. Among the remaining six, a horse oracle was to elect the future ruler (3.83-84). There follows the roguish tale about the firm hand of Oebares, whose tricks enabled Darius to seize the throne (3.85-87). Here, too, the Herodotean Greek spirit is evident (Köhnken, 1990), although earlier research postulated a retainer story coming from Persian tradition (Reinhardt, 1982, p. 357). The same observation can be made about the monument with an inscription built for Oebares (3.88.3), the authenticity of which is doubtful (West, 1985, pp. 296 f.; Schmitt, 1988, p. 31; Köhnken, 1990, p. 133), even if one refers to an alternative Oebares legend (Friedrich, 1936). The gods themselves confirmed with thunder and lightning that Darius was the chosen king (3.86.2; cf. Erbse 1992, p. 62). Darius immediately violated the compact of the conspirators, who had agreed that a marriage alliance could only be established within their own circle (3.84.2). Instead, he strengthened his power by a well-aimed dynastic policy and married two daughters of Cyrus, Atossa and Artystone (3.88.2). He also married Parmys, the daughter of the real Smerdis, as well as Phaidyme, the daughter of Otanes (3.88.3; cf. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, 1983; Brosius, 1996).

Reorganization of the empire. Immediately after that, Herodotus describes the reorganization of the empire by Darius. Twenty satrapies were organized as taxation districts (3.89.1), of which Herodotus provides a complete list (3.89.2-96.2; Descart, 1989). Regarding the historical truth of this division into provinces, there are great differences of opinions (Jacobs, 1994, 2004; Petit, 1990). Certainly one discerns here a literary tradition of cataloguing that goes back to Homer (Armayor, 1978c; Gschnitzer, 1988). It is used to display the growth of Barbarian power, as well as the economic potency of the Persian Empire. Later a similar device—description of a review of the Persian army—is introduced to show Xerxes’ military capability. At the same time, Herodotus connects these administrative measures with a fundamental structural reform, since he expressly points out that under Cyrus and Cambyses only presents were given (3.89.3). This statement is unanimously questioned in modern research (cf. Briant and Herrenschmidt, 1989). The Persians, according to Herodotus, did not have to pay taxes (3.97.1). In this matter, too, opinions are divided (Dandamayev, 1985, pp. 95 f.; Gschnitzer, 1988; Wiesehöfer, 1989). And lastly, the Arabs (3.88.1, 91.1, 97.5), Colchians (3.97.4), and Ethiopians (3.97.2-3) were three populations who are said to have only given presents of their own free will. Later, Herodotus adds, the Aegean islands, as well as the European nations as far as Thessaly, paid taxes to the Persians (3.96.1). Afterwards Herodotus provides a survey of the peripheral zones of the empire (3.97-117). He points out that the king had the Aces River in Chorasmia dammed and only let the sluices be opened in the summer in exchange for high taxes (cf. Griffiths, 2001). The Histories show a threatening power of monarchy rising oppressively over nature; a counterpart motif is Xerxes’ speculation about the inundation of Thessaly (7.128-30).

Intaphrenes’end. The conclusion of the consideration of the extent of Darius’s empire is a description of the fate of Intaphrenes in which a despotic tendency of the monarchy can already be sensed (3.118-19). Intraphrenes sued for the once promised privileges for the conspirators, including free access to the king (cf. 3.84.2). Darius suspected an attempted putsch and had Intaphrenes executed with a majority of his male relatives. In a dramatic scene, Darius granted the latter’s lamenting wife the favor of saving a male family member of her choice. The woman surprisingly decided for her brother, whom she considered as irreplaceable. In the attitude of the king there appears a mixture of harshness and magnanimity, which Herodotus again and again ascribed to the Persian monarchy. The connections of this scene with an episode from Sophocles’ Antigone were soon recognized. The question of this interdependence has, however, been evaluated in various ways (Rösler, 1993; West, 1999; West, 2003; Müller, 2002).

Expansion of the empire. Having delineated the dimensions of Darius’s power, Herodotus then described his expansionist policy. This began with the conquest of Samos (3.139.1), but Herodotus first—immediately after his account of the end of Polycrates (3.120-28)—inserted a story about the Greek physician Democedes (3.129-38; cf. Griffiths, 1987), which provided significant insights into Darius’s plans of conquest. The physician asked Atossa, whom he had cured, for a favor. She was to use her influence on Darius to have himself and some chosen scouts sent to Hellas to reconnoiter the situation for a later campaign. In addition, Atossa asked her royal husband for Laconian, Argive, Attic, and Corinthian female servants (3.134.5). The ensuing espionage activity was to reveal Darius’s latent aspiration towards increasing his power (Hunter, 1982, pp. 201 ff.). Spies disguised as merchants were making a record of the coasts of Hellas (3.136.1). According to Herodotus, these were the first Persians who came to Greece from Asia (3.134.4). This episode is important, because it shows that, even before the Ionian rebellion, the king was planning to attack Greece. In fact, Darius had already told Atossa that he was about to carry out a campaign against the Scythians (3.134.4), but before that the Samians became the first target (3.139-49).

Samos. Herodotus first offers a flashback to the time of Cambyses, when Darius was still the king’s lancebearer. Because of a present which Syloson, the brother of Polycrates, extended to Darius in Memphis (3.139), Darius later decided to assist Polycrates’ companion Maeandrius and send him an army for support (3.140). This army was led by Otanes, who forgot Darius’s warning to proceed without too much bloodshed. Thus Otanes ventured to organize a bloodbath against the male Samians as a retaliation for the assassination of a Persian envoy (3.147, 149).

Babylon. The submission of Samos was followed by the suppression of the Babylonian rebellion; the city was captured through the heroic ruse of Zopyrus (Rollinger, 1998, pp. 348-49; Henkelman, 1999; West, 2003). It became the object of severe retaliation (3.150-59; cf. Rollinger 1998, 1999a; see also Dillery, 1992).

Libya. With the Scythian campaign and the Libyan enterprise by Aryandes (4.145-205), Darius’s reign finally took up the offensive. In the process, the extent of territory in which Greeks had been made subject to the empire was considerably expanded. In this context, Herodotus presents the land and people of Libya (4.168-99) and adds a story about the founding of Cyrene (4.145-67; for Herodotus’s Libya see now generally Bichler, 2000b, pp. 61-64, 99-101; Sieberer, 1995, Karte 22; Liverani, 2000). As already in the dispatch of scouts to Greece, a woman played a crucial role in the preliminary stages of the war: Pheretime, the mother of Arcesilaus III, appealed to the Persians for help; her son was already obliged to pay tribute to Cambyses (4.165.2-3; 3.13.3-4). Here, too, a basic pattern of Herodotus’s idea of history is shown. Concerned with its privileges, the monarchy preferred the status of a vassal to the loss of power. That is precisely the way in which the Greek tyrants of Asia Minor will act in the context of the Scythian campaign (4.137.2-3). At the same time, Herodotus sees an unreasonable display of power in the Persian conquest. This is already evident in the lust for power of Aryandes, who aspired to be king and thus went to his doom (4.166). He tried, not only to conquer Barca and Cyrene, but also to subjugate all the Libyans. The Persian fleet played an important part in showing the dimensions of Persian power (4.167.1; 203.2), although it did not come into play as a military instrument. This recalls the Persian campaigns against the Massagetae, Ethiopians, and Scythians. Barca was captured successfully (4.200.1, 203.2), a step which presented a potential threat for Africa’s western regions. The danger was, however, averted; the Persians reached their westernmost point of advance at Euhesperides, a little beyond Barca (4.204). The extent of the planned expansion in Africa recalls later events in Europe, for which Herodotus also marks the westernmost point of Persian advance (9.14).

Scythia. Like the campaign against the Libyans, the one against the Scythians often resembles Xerxes’ venture, only this time the king was personally involved. The expedition presents a thoroughgoing example of a great failure. The account of the campaign is preceded by a digression about the land and people, which already shows the distinctive lifestyle of the Scythians, who combine great mobility with the development of state institutions and are not likely to be beaten by hostile armies. In many details, this campaign is an out-and-out prefiguration of Xerxes’ (cf. Wood, 1972, pp. 93 ff.; Sieberer, 1995, pp. 230-42). We again come across a dubious twofold operation on land and sea. At the same time, Herodotus presents a gigantic army, estimating 700,000 soldiers, as well as 600 ships (4.87.1). Darius was said to have written down the nations involved on a panel in the Assyrian and Greek scripts (cf. Schmitt, 1988, pp. 32 ff.; West, 1985, pp. 281 f.). The question of war debts also played an important part. Darius pretended to avenge the Scythian invasion of Asia (4.1.4), but the campaign it-self showed that others were also to be subjugated. It was this threatening scenario that the Scythian heralds tried to describe to the neighboring nations (4.118); but, as later in Greece, they did not manage to agree on common action (4.119). Yet none of these nations cooperated with Darius; and as a result the cannibals presented as neighbors of the Scythians were better off than the Thebans who collaborated with the Persians. Thus the Scythian search for alliances (4.102, 118 f.) may be described as a model for the similar action of the Greeks (7.148-71). At the same time, there appeared a great number of similar portents and scenes in both theaters of war. Artabanus played the part of the inevitable warner (4.83; 7.10, 7.45-52). The brutal punishment of the Persian nobleman Oeobazus, who wanted to protect his sons from doing military service, resembles Xerxes’ action against Pythius (4.83; 7.38 f.; cf. Rollinger, 2000a, pp. 66-70). In both cases, the Persian king claimed to be the best and most handsome man (4.84; 7.187.2). The technical achievement of building the Bosporus bridge (4.88.1) is comparable to Xerxes’ bridge on the Hellespont (7.44 f.); but in Darius’s case, going over the border meant crossing the Istros, which was likewise done by means of a bridge. The latter was, ironically enough, also watched over by Greek tyrants, who thus secured the king’s retreat. Once again, the preservation of one’s own position of power played a more important role than the fight for freedom. This attitude is underscored by the Greek tyrants actually preserving the imperial army from destruction during its retreat (4.140-41). Miltiades alone, the tyrant of the Chersonese and an Athenian by birth, is said to have opted for freedom (4.137.1).

The campaign ended in a great failure, although not in a debacle like that of Xerxes. Darius recognized the signs in good time and turned back. Here the heavily symbolic presents of the Scythian king Idanthyrsus, who gave Darius a bird, mouse, frog, and five arrows, played a special part (4.131.1). Gobryas alone was able to interpret these gifts (4.132.2-3), but his interpretation was acknowledged as correct by Darius. The fact that Darius was still able to preserve a proper balance is shown in his recoiling from desecrating the graves of the Scythian kings. When the Scythians finally prepared for battle and were seen to be carefree, letting themselves be distracted by a rabbit (4.134.1), the Great King at last realized the hopelessness of his venture. The only success of the campaign was the burning of the wooden walls of Gelonus (4.123.1); before the burning, as later in Athens, women and children were evacuated (4.121). On the whole, Darius’s Scythian campaign presents a model of a failed war of conquest, and scholars still argue about its historical worth. Not only is historicity called into question (Georges, 1987 [1995]), but there is the complication of references to the existence of oral traditions which reached Herodotus after being handed down locally (Thordarson 1988, 1996, 1997, 1998).

Thrace, Hellespontus, and Macedonia. Yet even in the eyes of Herodotus, the campaign did not remain without consequences, since it led to the extension of Persian power in Europe down to the borders of Hellas. On his way to the Scythian country, Darius finally subdued Thracian tribes, some of whom offered staunch resistance. Herodotus expressly points out the participation of Greek subjects in the Persian contingent (4.89.1). After his retreat, Darius left behind an army of 80,000 men in Europe under Megabazus with the task of subduing the people of the Hellespont (4.143.3). Megabazus was especially esteemed by the king, and the conquest of Hellas would again be addressed (4.143.1-2; Erbse, 1992, pp. 139 f.). This appointment led the way to future events, with Megabazus not only conquering Perinthus against violent resistance (5.1.1, 2.1), but reaching far beyond the Hellespont by subjecting the whole of Thrace (5.2.2; Sieberer, 1995, pp. 249-66). Although it becomes clear later that this conquest in fact only affected the coastal cities (5.10), Herodotus has prepared the ground for a small Thracian digression (5.3-10), to which the subjection of the Thracian tribes is appended as a prehistory to the Persian wars. The Paeonians were subjugated and resettled (5.15.3, 17.1). Here too, the interior population was spared (5.16.1). Macedonia finally came into the Persian sphere of influence. A delegation of seven Persians went to receive submission of their king Amyntas as the Great King’s subject. When they started to molest the Macedonian women, they were murdered by a crowd of Macedonians in women’s clothes led by the prince Alexander (5.17-21.1). Whether this story was invented by Herodotus (Erbse, 1992, pp. 101 ff.) or was a tradition simply recorded by him (Zahrnt, 1992) is debated (Gschnitzer, 2001). In reaction to the event, the Persians started a search operation, whose leader, Barbares, was bribed by Alexander (5.21). Thus the Persians had already approached Hellas before the Ionian rebellion. Meanwhile Otanes had conquered Byzantium, Calchedon, Lemnos, and Imbros (5.26).

The Ionian rebellion. The Persian Empire had reached its maximum expansion, and Herodotus ends his digressions about the foreign world. Only occasionally—as, for instance, about Xerxes’ military review—will such information be provided again. With the Ionian rebellion, the confrontation with Hellas began, towards which the account had been leading from the very start. Also from this point Herodotus’s sources, as well as the quality of his information, are judged differently in recent scholarship (cf. Brown, 1981; Walser, 1984, pp. 27-35; Murray, 1988; Kienast, 1994; Walter, 1993; Georges, 2000). The beginning was more a matter of Greek internal discord. Aristagoras of Miletus enticed the satrap Artaphrenes to intervene in Naxos and to conquer the island. But the Persian plans immediately exceeded a just cause, for in addition to the Cyclades, they also meant to conquer Euboea (5.31), for which purpose the Persians mustered 200 ships (5.31.4). Darius expressly agreed with the project and in addition provided a great army under the command of Megabates (5.32). The project finally failed due to a dispute between the commanders (5.33-34). This led to the exposure of Aristagoras’s machinations. He tried to save his life by anticipating and goading on the Ionic Greeks to rebellion. In an impressive scene, Hecataeus warned them against doing so. He could enumerate all the tribes commanded by Darius (5.36.2; West, 1991a). Through the quest for alliances, which led Aristagoras to Sparta and Athens, the rebellion acquired greater dimensions At the same time, the exiled tyrant Hippias was scheming at the satrap’s court in Sardis. Artaphrenes’ request to re-admit the tyrant was rejected by the Athenians (5.96). Herodotus expressly blames the stupidity of the Athenians in supporting Aristogoras with 20 ships. It was this decision which he considered as the source of future misfortune (5.97.3). It must be borne in mind that, according to Herodotus, the Athenians had already under Cleisthenes submitted to the Persians, having provided the satrap of Sardis with earth and water (5.73; cf. Orlin, 1976; Zahrnt, 1992, pp. 256 ff.; Vickers, 1990; for Athens generally, see Ehrhardt, 1992). The rebels were very successful to begin with. They advanced as far as Sardis, reduced the city to ashes (5.100-101), and set fire to the Cybele sanctuary (5.102). After a disastrous battle near Ephesus (5.102), the Athenians withdrew from the struggle, still in the beginning stage of the revolt. Thus their first engagement in Asia left behind a thoroughly negative impression. The same was true of the Lacedaemonian intervention in Samos, which Herodotus counted as in Asia (3.56.2). However, the Athenian intermezzo was not without consequences. Darius swore to wreak vengeance against the Athenians. At each meal, a servant was required to remind him three times of their misdeed (5.105). Here Herodotus expressly points out that the king’s indignation was so boundless because the Athenians came from another continent (5.106.1). In a famous scene, Darius proceeded to demand an explanation from Histiaeus, the former tyrant of Miletus, who resided at his court and whom he accused of conspiring with the rebels (5.106-7). The latter successfully managed to deceive the king, saying that, if allowed to return home, he would set things right for the king and in addition make Sardo (Sardinia), the largest island of the Mediterranean, pay tribute to him. Darius’s consent was revealing, since it showed that his ambitions far exceeded a justified punishment.

The rebellion in Caria and Cyprus worsened. In a dramatic scene and with the aid of a crafty squire, the leader of the Cyprians Onesilus vanquished the Persian commander Artybius, who possessed a specially trained warhorse (5.113). The Persians were victorious in the land battle (5.113), while the Ionians won a maritime victory (5.112; Watkin, 1987). This was the first twofold battle in the Histories which was said to have been fought in one and the same day (5.112.1). Meanwhile the Persians were striking back everywhere. The Persian general Daurises, a son-in-law of Darius, defeated the rebels on the Hellespont (5.117-120). His son-in-law Hymaees first operated in Mysia and next conquered the Aeolian cities of Troas but died there of a grave disease (5.122). When Daurises proceeded against the Carians, he was defeated in a battle near Pedasus, where he lost his life. With him two Persian strategists, Amorges and Sisimaces, were also killed (5.121; cf. Bengston 1953/4, p. 305, who here assumes a written source by Herodotus). Caria could not be conquered until later, after the fall of Miletus (6.25.2). The climax was the maritime battle near Lade. Herodotus’s figures are closely reminiscent of Salamis. The Persians indeed raised for the encounter 600 ships, exactly half of the later fleet (6.9.1). Herodotus for the first time provides a detailed list of ships, enumerating all the Greek contingents (6.8). Exiled tyrants, however, drove a wedge into the phalanx of the Greek alliance, and during the battle some cowardly allies fled (6.14). Finally, Miletus was invested with the help of siege engines and captured (6.18). The prisoners were resettled at Ampe on the Tigris (6.20). Ionia was severely punished. The most handsome boys were castrated, young girls were dragged to the king’s harem, and sanctuaries were burnt down (6.32). The Phoenician fleet conquered the rebellious cities on the Hellespont and Propontis (6.33). In this connection, Herodotus points out a grave situation; even cities on the European side of the Hellespont were now made submissive (6.32.1). Thus the Thracian Chersonese was incorporated into the Persian Empire (6.33.3). Although Herodotus describes this without any dramatic touches, his digression regarding the Philaids and the younger Miltiades provides a direct connection with Marathon and further events. Miltiades himself fled to Athens (6.40-41). One of his sons, Metiochus, was captured by the Persians, but Darius treated him magnaminously (6.41). The multiple aspects of Herodotus’s skills of portrayal are also shown in the conclusion, where he praises the steps taken by Artaphrenes for securing stable conditions in Ionia (6.42). The resulting recognition that a just Barbarian reign could also definitely deal with internal Greek disputes is, however, immediately denied by a renewed change of perspective. The appearance of Mardonius, the son of Gobryas and son-in-law of Darius, with his arrogant projects, again suggests the overweening dimensions of the Persian display of power. Herodotus surprisingly reports Mardonius’s attempts to replace the tyrants of the Ionic cities by democracies (6.43). Whether or not Herodotus thus criticizes the expansive Athenian imperialism of his own times is a debatable point. In any case, he cannot have had in mind democracies in the real sense, for the latter did not develop before the course of the 5th century (Schuller, 1989).

Mardonius. Mardonius prepared for a great campaign against Athens and Eretria. To Herodotus these were, however, mere pretexts. In reality, as many cities as possible were to be conquered (6.44.1). In view of the ensuing events of war, however, the alleged plans were of enormous dimension compared with the rather modest declared objective (cf. Zahrnt, 1992, who considers Mardonius’s aims to be the reconquest of the lost territories of Thrace and Macedonia). From the start, Herodotus revealed Mardonius’s true intentions of conquest when the latter subjected the Thasians, who had so far remained neutral (6.44.1). Even the Macedonians and the Thracian Brygi; were fought down (6.44 f.). Yet Herodotus considered the entire project as a gigantic failure (6.45.2). The reason was the shipwreck suffered by the Persian fleet—300 boats, half as many as at Lade—when they attempted to circumnavigate the peninsula of Mount Athos (6.44). According to Herodotus, this first twin land and sea venture directed against Hellas, by which only Thasos was affected, thus ended in a debacle.

Datis and Artaphrenes. While Herodotus had already exaggerated Mardonius’s enterprise, that of Datis and Artaphrenes were described as a general attack on the whole of Greece. Darius tested the resistance of the Greeks and sent out messengers to demand earth and water (6.48). Thus Herodotus again marked the king’s exaggerated imperialistic claims to rule over both elements (Bichler 2000b, pp. 312 f.; Kuhrt, 1988, on the other hand, considered this action as an actual ritual for the establishment of vassalage). In any case, many mainland Greeks and all Island Greeks were said to have followed the royal demand—among them Aegina (6.49). Herodotus makes this point in order to focus on the internal Greek conflicts between Athens and Aegina and discuss the troubles in Sparta which led to Demaratus’s exile (6.49-93). Of course, what heightened the subsequent achievement of Athens was the fact that the Athenians practically alone met the Persians near Marathon, although at this time other Greek cities were to be considered as essentially more powerful. But before discussing the campaign as such, Herodotus once more points to the Great King’s motives and plans (6.94). Meanwhile he regarded the vengeance against Athens and Eretria as a pretense. In reality, Darius wanted to conquer all of Greece, so he appears as an aggressor. The warmongering of the exiled Pisistratids also played a part. The commanders were Artaphrenes, the nephew of the king, and the Mede Datis. The campaign was again described as a gigantic dual venture. Army and fleet started out from Cilicia (6.95). This time, the Persians with their 600 boats were as powerful as they had been at Lade and when confronting the Scythians. The fleet first sailed to Naxos, where the inhabitants were enslaved and town and temple were set on fire (6.96). Herodotus clearly presents this action as wrongful. Nor is this altered by Datis’ assurances to the timorous Delians that he respected their shrine. An earthquake revealed the disturbance of the divinity and predicted imminent disaster (6.98). Eretria fell after six days through betrayal (6.101). Here, too, the sanctuaries were destroyed and the inhabitants enslaved. This time, there were Ionian and Aeolian units in the Persian army (6.98.1). Hippias led the Persians into the plain of Marathon (6.102); already his father Pisistratus had successfully landed here after a ten-year exile in Eretria (1.62.1). Omens, however, once again show that Hippias’s case is lost (6.107; Erbse, 1992, pp. 104 ff.).

The Athenian defenders—supported by Plataeans alone—were camping at the nearby Heracles sanctuary. After lengthy discussions, they agreed to carry out Miltiades’ strategy and proceeded to attack (6.109-11; for the battle see Evans 1993; Storch; 2001; cf. also Walser, 1984, pp. 36-39). They started the battle, running on the double and across open ground (6.112). While the Persians and Sacians successfully held their ground in the center, the Athenians and Plataeans proved to be superior on the wings. Finally, the Persians were pushed back to the ships; and, once they gave way, there was a bloodbath (6.113). They were hardly able to reach the boats. Yet they turned southwards to Cape Sunion and thus threatened Athens. Meanwhile the victors hurried back to prevent another landing, and the Greeks again camped by a Heracles sanctuary (6.116). The Persian fleet anchored on the high sea, then sailed away on the following day. Herodotus reports about 6,000 dead Barbarians and 192 dead Athenians (6.117.2). Alarmed by a dream, Datis managed to find an Apollo statue stolen by his Phoenician sailors and personally brought it back to the Apollo temple in Delphi (6.118). Thus Herodotus changed the previously accepted image of the Persian general and lent him a thoroughly dignified veneer. This incident shows that the Persians were by no means altogether pejoratively described in the Histories (Bichler, 2000b, p. 315). The same is true for the description of the later Xerxes expedition (Schmal, 1995, pp. 94 ff.). Darius, too, showed magnanimity at the sight of the beaten Eretrians. He abstained from any further revenge and settled them in the Cissian country (6.119).

The last years. When Darius heard about the outcome of the battle of Marathon, he became embittered about Athens and prepared another war against Hellas (7.1.2). After three years of preparing arms, which according to Herodotus were to build up to a vast campaign against the whole of Greece, the fourth year saw a rebellion in Egypt (7.1.2). Darius did not live to cope with both problems. Herodotus dates the decision regarding his succession to the last years of the king’s reign. From Atossa and the daughter of Gobryas he had seven sons, and there were rivalries between the eldest ones, Xerxes and Arobazanes (7.2).The former Spartan king Demaratus, who lived in exile, became counsellor to Xerxes and advised the latter on how to insist on his birthright (7.3). The story draws its appeal from the fact that Demaratus had been deposed because of his allegedly low extraction. Herodotus remarks that Xerxes would have become king even without Demaratus, due to the great power wielded by Atossa (7.3.4). (Cf. Brosius, 1996, pp. 108 f., who has doubts about Atossaδs true power.) In the midst of his preparations for war, Darius died in the 36th year of his reign. Xerxes inherited the throne and was destined to assume his father’s military legacy (7.4). Up to the end of his reign, Darius had been marked by his constant thoughts of vengeance. This in any case darkened the overall picture of him drawn by Herodotus, who otherwise always attributed a clever power policy to him, acknowledging his sovereign magnanimity as well as his despotic arbitrariness. There thus emerges an altogether complex picture of the king, which is finally marked by his calculated striving for power and possessions (Georges, 1994, pp. 198 f.; Bichler, 2000b, p. 317)

 

Bibliography: See HERODOTUS xi. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY.

(Robert Rollinger)

Originally Published: December 15, 2003

Last Updated: March 22, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 264-270