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The towering ‘God-Kings’ of Persian empire

Historian Amélie Kuhrt upheaves the ancient Babylonian text Nabonidus Chronicle to be ‘the most reliable account of the fall of Babylon’. The initial formation of the Achaemenid kingdom of Persia was in fact the result of a unison planned by Cyrus the Great.

If the ancient Babylonian text Nabonidus Chronicle (compiled in between 556 BCE and 539 BCE) were to be trusted in the manner historian Amélie Kuhrt upheaves it to be ‘the most reliable and sober [ancient] account of the fall of Babylon’, Cyrus the Great, usually taken to be the founder of the later great Achaemenids, was initially the king of a considerably small territory called ‘Ansan’, given that the time talked about is not one of Cyrus’ birth and upbringing (that is shred in many a folklore, few of which are rather mystical in nature) but one of when, as detailed by the chronicle, the last Median king Astyages, invaded the newly crowned Cyrus, under the superior command of General Hypargus, who through his defection was however, as credited by Herodotus, the one most responsible for stabilising the rule of the Median adversary.
Astyages (in the inscriptions of Nabonidus, named ‘Ishtuvegu’), the ultimate Shahanshah of Media, for his part, was very soon overthrown by the young king and taken to his court, either as a later governor of a satrapy or someone in charge of a court faction (both of which denote the level of ‘clemency’ shown by the young king), while the empire’s capital at Ecbatana was annexed and Lydia, having risen up under one Croesus conquered and made a part of the initial Achaemenid crown by early 546 BCE.null

Darius from Naqsh e Roshtam


The initial formation of the Achaemenid kingdom of Persia was in fact the result of a unison planned and executed well by Cyrus and his bureaucratic officers. With the defeat of the Median king, Cyrus’ relatives (among whom notably were Hystaspes, the emperor’s second cousin and a later governor of Parthia and Phrygia and Arsames, the father of the later ‘God-king’ Darius and then, a governor of the territory of Parsa) deflected and extended their allegiance to him, the consequential upshot of which was the great kingdom of Persia, an amalgamation of the two Achaemenid territories of Parsa and Anshan.
Cyrus’ ultimate conquest was that of the neo-Babylonian empire under King Nabonidus, a conflict that was successfully accomplished by the Persian, somewhere around 540 to 539 BCE, the reasons for his steadfast victory partially being the exceptional command of his generals (some of the greatest known military officers in the then world) and partially because of the huge unpopularity (among the civilians) the Babylonian king had heightened for himself! As is inscribed in the Cyrus cylinder, presently kept at the British Museum in London, it was after this victory of his that Cyrus came to regard himself as the first Persian “king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad and the king of the four corners of the world”, having established the largest known extensions of an empire in that point of time, in recorded history.
As documented by the British Museum, the cylinder further reads, “‘I, Cyrus, king of the world …‘.He presents himself as a worshipper of Marduk (the chief deity of the Babylonian Pantheon) who strove for peace in Babylon and abolished the labour-service of its population. The people of neighbouring countries brought tribute to Babylon, and Cyrus claims to have restored their temples and religious cults, and to have returned their previously deported gods and people.The text ends with a note of additional food offerings in the temples of Babylon and an account of the rebuilding of Imgur-Enlil, the city wall of Babylon, during the course of which an earlier building inscription of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627 BC), was found.”
As for the later part of his life and his ultimate fate, Herodotus, the historian from Halicarnassus, puts forward a version of his research wherein he details us on the death of Cyrus, while battling against one Tomyris, the queen of the Massagetae.
Russian historian Muhammad Dandamayev accepts this version and details one further with his own presumptions of Tomyris having been a wife of Cyrus himself. Whether this statement is factual is debatable because as far as a mariticide is concerned, why would a woman (especially when she is the wife of the greatest emperor in the then known world), however ambitious she herself might have been, murder her husband, and in the process, abandon all the rights and privileges she ever enjoyed (there exists no evidence to prove that Tomyris ever ascended the Persian throne, be that as a queen or as a regent, after the death of Cyrus)?
The canonised ‘God-king’ phrase, taken up by the Persian rulers after the defeat of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus III (last monarch of the 26th dynasty of Egypt) at the hands of the mighty successor of Cyrus, his son and the second Achaemenid King of Kings Cambyses II (at the decisive Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE), is, in noted historian Irfan Habib’s words, ‘closely allied with the priesthoods’ and enforced in order to ‘bound people in allegiance to rulers’.
Cambyses died of mysterious circumstances in 522 BCE, Herodotus ascribing his untimely death to an accident, Ctesias to a suicide and modern historians blaming the later king Darius and his supporters for the same. Nevertheless, with the demise of the ‘god-king’ Cambyses II, his younger brother and political rival Bardiya ascended the imperial throne, only to be replaced by the son and successor of his father’s uncle, Darius, in a neatly organised manner, documented well in ‘Histories’ by Herodotus.
“Otanes asks his daughter Phaidyme – who is a member of the harem and thus has access to the king – to check whether the man has ears. Phaidyme does as asked, and one night while the king is asleep, confirms that the king does not in fact have ears. His suspicions confirmed, Otanes then gathers six noblemen and plots to get rid of the false Smerdis. A seventh nobleman, Darius, arrives at the capital shortly thereafter, and is then included in the group. The seven conspirators charge into the chambers of the king, and while five deal with the guards, Darius and Megabyzus kill the false Smerdis and a companion.”, says Herodotus, detailing the assassination of the king and of how it had been organised. “Five days later, after the tumult has died down, the seven meet again to discuss a suitable form of government (3.80–82). After some discussion over the merits of democracy (proposed by Otanes) and oligarchy (proposed by Megabyzus) and monarchy (proposed by Darius), four of the seven vote in favour of a monarchy. They then decide to hold a contest whereby whichever of them got his horse to neigh first after sunrise shall become king. Darius cheats and ascends the throne”, adds the Halicarnassian.
Even if Darius did cheat and kill both Cambyses and Bardiya, this only adds up to show how diplomatic he was as a person. In those times, there were powerful nobles, military officials and governors who continually suspected and kept check on the ruler’s activities, even if he be one self proclaimed ‘god king’.
And amidst all this, a man who succeeds in luring every societal class to believe in his fabricated version of the story and weds the daughter (Parmys) of the magiophani he had allegedly killed, does deserve to be an emperor!
Ascending the throne in 522 BCE itself, Darius became the warlord of the greatest empire in all of Asia, the Achaemenid. His territories extended from the Greek country of Macedonia and Thrace to as far as the Central Asian Indus Valley, spanning over three definite continents (Egypt, Libya and Sudan being regions of Africa) and numerous regional kingdoms that zealously expressed their utmost allegiance to the new ‘god-king’.
Parts of Indus, for which Darius is read about in the Indian history today, had already come under the Persian hegemony in as early as 535 BCE, the first invasion to the subcontinent having been led by the vainglorious Achaemenid godfather, Cyrus, himself!
After Cyrus’ death and the commencement of the war with the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, most of these allied vassals who resided here in the Indus region had likely been called back to fight alongside their emperor Cambyses (although it is a presumption and dubitable because the first recorded accounts of Indians in Greece was during the Battle of Marathon, waged by King Darius in the later part of his reign [490 BCE] and commandeered by generals Datis and Artaphernes) and the Persian sway in the region may have dwindled, as is evident from the campaigns of the newly crowned Darius into the Indus region (probably to revive the lost Persian hegemony) and the establishment of satrapies at Gandara, Hindush, and Sattagydia (the names of the territories are found in the Naqsh-e Rustam inscription on the tomb of Darius I), that were then placed under the probable governorship of a Greek sea captain called Scylax of Caryanda though there exist very few primary resources, so as to firmly establish this point of view, Scylax’s own accounts as a geographer having been completely lost.
With regard to the Indian tribute to the Achaemenid administration, Greek historian Herodotus quotes that “The Indians made up the twentieth province. These are more in number than any nation known to me, and they paid a greater tribute than any other province, namely three hundred and sixty talents of gold dust”, corroborating the Indian wealth and grandiosity on a globalised scale, from a very ancient time.
Nevertheless, inspite of Darius’ great successes in the east, Greece did not falter and kneel before the ‘god-king’. The Battle of Marathon (also known as the First Persian invasion of Greece) ended in a decisive defeat for the Persians and resulted in a lowered stature for the God king himself, for it was now known to his subjects that even an accoutred opposition as a ‘god-king’ stands vincible!
Darius, a man who also saw many a building project accomplished during his reign (notable among them being the ones at Susa, Persepolis and his coronation centre at Pasargadae) died (486 BCE) in despondency, bearing a failed invasion next to his godly name and although prophesying a second rampage, never managing to make it happen in his lifetime, a project that was later undertaken by his son and successor, the ruler of the immortals and of almost every known territory on earth at the time, the fifth Achaemenid king of kings, Xerxes! Ascending the throne in 486 BCE and in order to avenge the humiliation incurred by his father, Xerxes the Great launched the second wave of Persian invasions to Greece, this time a Brobdingnagian force with an estimated four lac soldiers of the empire!
Although the Persians did succeed initially in displacing a few kings and defeating some more formidable ones (notable among them being the King of Sparta Leonidas I), it soon suffered severe setbacks against the unified Greek hoplites at the Battle of Plataea and its inviolable navy was left scattered and dented at the Battle of Mycale, a result of dissatisfaction for the proud Persians, the consequence of which had probably been seen in the assassination of Xerxes at the hands of his royal bodyguard, himself (in 465 BCE).
Although many other Xerxeses, Artaxerxeses and Dariuses succeeded the dead king to the Persian throne, none of them could ever revive the glory that the empire’s gonfalons fluttered with once, under the reign of the grand ‘God-kings’.
Eventually in 330 BCE, with the siege of the Persian capital at Persepolis owing to the superior military display on the part of the Macedonian phalanx led by Alexander, an empire that once stood out as an example for all others, was itself turned into rubbles, the last king Darius III being known in history for not being true to what his name meant: the rich and the kingly!

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in