III, Last Achaemenid
king of Persia
, son of Arsames
Born 375 BC
, Reigned 336
Artaxerxes III had ruled with blood and steel. He had increased the military glory the Persian Empire at the cost of his popularity. His vizier, Bagoas, who had been controlling the kingdom by manipulating him, became afraid that the people might revolt or an invading ruler would be allowed to replace Artaxerxes. He ordered Artaxerxes poisoned and had his oldest sons killed, leaving Artaxerxes' youngest son, Arses, to rule. Bagoas calculated that the young king would be nervous about his new position of power and easily manipulated. Arses soon began to show his independence and Bagoas poisoned him as well. Through Bagoas' court manipulations, Darius , who was well liked for his bravery, was offered the throne. Bagoas hoped that Darius' lack of experience would make him easy prey. This was not the case and Bagoas made plans to poison him. Darius had survived many battles through cunning and quickly sniffed out Bagoas' plot. Darius baited him with an invitation to a dinner and a toast. Bagoas took the bait and felt the noose tighten as Darius handed him his own goblet. Bagoas was forced to drink his own poison and died.
Darius, who was named Artashata, had campaigned with Artaxerxes III against the Cadusians. One of the Cadusians had challenged the Persians to send someone forth for single combat and none volunteered but Darius. For his victory, the king had honored him greatly, gaining him much wealth and favor in the court. He was a resolute optimist who saw only success before him. At his coronation, Darius, about 40 years old at the time, was clad in his commander's uniform, attesting that he was still in the service of his people.
The year before Darius became king, Philip II of Macedon formed the League of Corinth to liberate Greek cities from Achaemenid rule. Philip's motives were less than humanitarian for he planned to weaken Persian rule in order to take the cities his own. Soon after Darius accepted the crown, Philip sent a force into Asia Minor. Darius, with the aid of his greatest general and friend, Memnon, held off the Macedonian forces. Philip was assassinated in July of that year and Darius presumed the threat to be neutralized.
Darius led an army to reclaim the Nile River in January 334. Egypt had ceded during the brief rule of Arses after it had been reclaimed by Artaxerxes II. Darius was highly successful in these battles but little else turned out as he expected. Darius returned home and in May, the young King Alexander of Macedon led his men across the Hellespont River and crushed the Persian army at Granicus. Darius was unprepared for the sudden insurgence and soon knew the new king as Alexander the Great. Near the end of 334, Memnon grew ill and died suddenly, leaving Darius without his best general and his commander of western defense. Darius knew then that his only hope was to raise a full-scale army and meet Alexander in the field.
In November of 333, Darius' army met Alexander's near Issus on the Mediterranean Sea and was crushed within hours. Darius barely managed to escape alive and his wife and children were captured. Over the next two years, Darius sent two letters to Alexander. The letters offered Alexander all Persian land west of the Euphrates, a ransom for the release of Darius' family, and the hand of Darius' daughter. Alexander rejected the offers both times and continued his march into Mesopotamia. His army crossed the Tigris and Euphrates and met no resistance until reaching Gaugamela. Darius had regrouped and raised a force that outnumbered Alexander's in only 2 years (by 10 to 1, according to some records.) Shortly before the fight, Darius was informed of the death of his wife. Darius had trouble believing that it was not due to mistreatment but the messenger reassured him and related that even Alexander had wept upon discovering her death. Darius sent a third and final peace offering to Alexander with the messenger. Darius knew rejection was imminent and so at the end, wrote a prayer that Persia find itself in the hands of a merciful ruler.
On October 1st, 331, conflict erupted on the fields of Gaugamela. In the early parts of the battle, the Persians enjoyed some victories. They had raided the Macedonian camp and had wiped out an entire wing of the Macedonian army. Darius himself was riding along the front lines hurling javelins from his chariot and Alexander ordered his men to target Darius specifically. They were unable to hit Darius but his chariot driver was killed. Thinking he was in peril, his men started to panic and broke their ranks. Darius was forced to retreat as his flanks became exposed and he was about to be surrounded. Darius' army was routed and again, Darius fled from the battlefield guarded by General Bessus and his Bactrian cavalry.
Darius ran from Alexander like a hunted animal, spending a winter in Ecbatana before reaching Bactria, the farthest eastern extent of the Persian Empire, in 330. Darius hoped that Alexander would be occupied with looting Susa and Babylon long enough to build a new army and meet him once more. Darius was able to gather forces but, as his mood sank, his generals and men started to loose faith in him. Darius wanted to die fighting while his men did not want to die at all. Bessus conspired with Nabarzanes, Darius' vizier and Barsaentes, satrap of Drangiana. In July, Nabarzanes suggested in front of Darius that Bessus replace Darius as king and when Darius drew his sword to fight Nabarzanes, he found himself surrounded by Bactrian soldiers. He knew his time was short and took the remainder of the day to thank his tloyal aides for their service and release his remaining servants. That evening, the Bactrians arrested him, tied him up with golden chains, and hid him in a cart covered with dirty clothing.
Alexander heard of Darius' plight and accelerated his pursuit. Bessus and his fellow conspirators got word of Alexander's advance and urged Darius to mount a horse and continue east in hopes that Alexander would ignore them. Darius refused and the three men attacked with spears, injuring him and the horses pulling the cart. Darius lay there wounded until he was discovered by one of Alexander's soldiers. Evidentially, Alexander wanted him alive and so the soldier offered Darius water and attempted to bind his wounds. Darius is quoted as telling the soldier: "This is the final stroke of my misfortune, that I should accept a service from you, and not be able to return it." He then shook the soldier's hand and requested that the handshake be passed to Alexander. Darius died before Alexander could reach him.
Bessus fled deeper into Bactria and declared himself King Artaxerxes IV before being captured by Alexander in 329. Alexander handed Bessus over to Darius' brother, Oxathres, who had him executed. Nabarzanes turned himself in immediately and was pardoned at the behest of one of Darius' head servants (a eunuch who was also named Bagoas that became intimate with Alexander.) Barsaentes fled to India but was tracked down and delivered to Alexander in 326.
With the death of Darius III, Persia's line of Achaemenid rulers came to an end as did the Persian Empire as it had existed. Darius was a courageous man and a military strategist who had the misfortune of locking horns with Alexander the Great. If he had been king at a different time, perhaps the Persian Empire would have grown and flourished.
Despite being a child of an incestuous marriage, Darius was said to have been quite tall and handsome. His great height is confirmed by records of Alexander the Great having difficulty when sitting upon the throne in Susa because his feet couldn't touch the floor. Alexander had similar problems in Darius' banquet hall as well. His looks, while not as easily argued, can at least be considered since he is the only Persian king of whom a portrait survives today. A mosaic depicting a battle between Darius and Alexander was unearthed in Pompeii in 1831. It is unknown whether the scene is supposed to represent Issus or Gaugamela or an amalgam of both battles. The mosaic is part of the permanent collection of the Archeological Museum of Naples, Italy.
Sources: http://www.gaugamela.com/, Encyclopedia Britannica.
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