Darius’ burial monument at Naqs-e Rustam combines inscription with pictorial carvings representing how Darius wanted himself to be remembered upon his death. As can be seen by the carving of a soldier on horseback, Darius portrays himself here as a warrior soldier, as someone who is willing to fight alongside his troops and risk his life for the good of the Persian Empire. This image of Darius is further supported by the somewhat exaggerated inscription next to it:
‘My body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles. […] I am skilled both in hands and in feet. A horseman, I am a good horseman. A bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. A spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback.
Being a man who believed in the Philosophy of Azhura Mazda – the god of the Zoroastrian religion of the Persian empire at the time – Darius believed that Azhura Mazda ‘made me king’, bestowing upon him the warrior-like qualities and other characteristics that is required in a ruler. Darius, in short, is attempting to make himself equal, or at least the closest living human being to a God himself.
But as if Darius couldn’t blow his trumpet any louder, he goes on to proclaim himself as not only an excellent warrior king chosen by God, but furthermore as a just and good ruler to his people:
‘I am a friend of the right. Of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak.’
Darius is the perfect warrior, the perfect ruler and in short, the perfect man. A champion and force of good, a fighter of evil and a protector of the weak. This sense of perfection can be further corroborated with the carving of Darius standing in front of God himself – Ahura Mazda and the symbolic Zoroastrian eternal flame, while being carried (or supported) by the 28 nation/subjects under his dominion. Controversially this includes the Greeks, a people Darius didn’t totally subjugate despite his and his successors attempts. The carving is perhaps an ancient representation of a personality cult. Here he is the perfect man, a man of the people, a man bestowed by God to be the ruler of the whole world. A good king; the peoples king – a Godlike king.
In term of Herodotus account of Darius’ campaigns against the Greeks between 492 and 486, the inscriptions and carvings essentially contradict Darius’ self portrayal as a ‘friend of the right’. Darius was indeed a warrior soldier, leading his men during his earlier campaigns in the East. But it was Mardonius – a military general appointed by Darius – who was to do the dirty work of bringing the Greek city states to heal in the West. After the failed invasion of the Greek city of Nexos, and the subsequent crushing of the Greek Ionian rebellions, Mardonius was tasked with bringing the two main Greek cities of Eritrea and Athens to heal due to their involvement in aiding the Ionian rebels. However Persia’s real intentions were essentially to ‘subjugate as many Greek towns as they could’ (H6-44). Darius sent out messengers to many Greek city-states offering terms of peace in exchange for subjugation. Some cities inherently yielded to his request while others – such as Athens and Eretria vowed to fight rather than become another pawn of Darius’ vast empire. Hence Darius sent the order to ‘reduce Athens and Eretria to slavery’ (H6-94) for their refusal.
On way to Eretria, the Persians made a second attempt of invading Nexos – this time successful. Darius’ army carried some of the inhabitants into slavery and proceeded to burn the city and temples within it (H6-96). From here Darius’ army made their way to Eretria, and after a six day assault and many dead two Eretrians betrayed the city to the Persians, and so they:
‘entered, and stripped the temples bare and burnt them in revenge for the burnt temples of Sardis, and, in accordance with Darius’ orders, carried off all the inhabitants as slaves.’ (H6-101).
Even though Mardonius was successful in subjugating a handful of Greek city states as well as the Macedonians and Thracian tribes such as the Brygi (H6-45), Darius’ army was eventually defeated at Marathon in 490. Herodotus tells us that upon hearing about the defeat at Marathon, Darius’:
‘…anger against Athens, already great enough on the account of the assault on Sardis, was even greater, and he was more than ever determined to make war on Greece. Without loss of time he dispatched couriers to the various states under his dominion with order to raise an army much larger than before; and also warships, transports, horses, and grain. So the royal command went round; all Asia was in uproar for three years, with the best men being enrolled in the army for the invasion of Greece’ (H 7-1)
If we trust the account and reports of Herodotus, then that there is vert little correspondence between his accounts and those at Naqs-e Rustam. Darius is not a friend of the right, nor does he really believe that the strong shouldn’t harm the weak. On the contrary, Darius’ position is basically : submit peacefully or be subdued by force – the modern equivalent of your money or your life type scenario. And we have seen the extent Darius goes in order to get his own way – enslavement, razing cities , destroying shrines and temples.
As a warrior, this is also suspect. Indeed, it was true that Darius led his men in battles – particularity in the east such as Bactria (modern day Afghanistan). However he relied on his own generals to bring the Greeks to heal. Though he made plans for personally leading an invasion force during the mid 480’s , Darius subsequently died before he could carry this out.
lastly, the carving of a Greek being subject to Darius’ empire is, although technically correct ( Darius managed to subdue the Ionian Greeks and other cities that accepted his terms ), it isn’t totally correct in the sense that a large majority of Greek city states such as Athens and those on the Peloponnese were still firmly out of their grasped.
In conclusion, Darius paints a picture of himself different to that of Herodotus’ reports. Darius wants to come across as just man, a good ruler and a champion for the weak. But in reality Darius was a ruthless king. A man that demanded complete subjugation with war as an alternative. Darius was clearly capable of enslaving people – not a particularly kind trait, and had no issues razing cities and destroying religious temples or shrines. Indeed, one must ask, are empires really built upon kindness and compassion as Darius makes himself out to be? Surley the answer is no.
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt (London: Penguin, 1996)