Another Greatest Ancient Leader… Or 10 Points to Know About the Persian Great King Darius

Urged, years ago, by editors at, to write top 10-type articles, I tried to pick a heading that would cover various types of important ancient military figures in The 10 Greatest Ancient Military Leaders. The problem wasn’t ancient — many of the world’s greatest of all time were ancient. It wasn’t the word military since that covered the men I was looking at. The problem was the word “leader.” It’s really hard to think of military writer Sun Tzu as a leader, but I went with it anyway.

That military leaders’  list features Cyrus the Great of Persia, aka Cyrus II. One of his successors is an even more impressive leader, but his forte was administration (even though he expanded the Persian Empire from Egypt to India), and so he didn’t make the list.  Dārayavauš aka Darius the Great, who was Persia’s Great King from 5 October 522 – November 486 BC, is a truly remarkable figure in ancient history.

Supplemented by archaeology and writing from other times, knowledge about the Great King Darius comes largely from his autobiographical inscriptions and Greek sources, both of which might be called propaganda, and we don’t know exactly where Cyrus’ contributions ended, and Darius’ began, but even recognizing the limits to our information, Darius established administrative and engineering systems that functioned well in a multi-ethnic, topologically diverse empire. “ADMINISRATIVE LEGACIES OF THE PERSIAN WORLD-STATE EMPIRE: IMPLICATIONS FOR MODERN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION, Part 2,” by ALI FARAZMAND [Public Administration Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (FALL 2002-WINTER, 2003), pp. 393- 425]  argues there were over three million bureaucrats “includ[ing] a range of functionaries from petty officers, informers, foot carriers and workers in the courts to high officials in the middle and strategic positions.”

This list, based mainly on Farazmand’s material, which was written not so much for sake of presenting verified accomplishments as to present them to modern administrators, conveys the essence of Darius’ remarkable achievements.

  1. He established a uniform monetary system based on the gold Daric with mints placed strategically. The gold and silver sigloi were used for military, political, and administrative, while economic and commercial exchange was done using copper or other coins.
  2. Weights and measures were standardized for the taxes. Treasuries were located in Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis. Subjects paid in coin or kind, but Persians served in the military.
  3. He divided the empire into 20* tribute-collecting satrapies governed by a satrap. These satraps were further subdivided into provinces. The provinces were generally members of the groups they governed rather than Persian or Median nobility.
  4. In addition to the tributes satraps collected from their geographic areas,  “[t]axes and tolls were collected at waterways, communication points, city entrances, roads, bridges, harbors, ports and forts, transportation facilities, etc.”
  5. He established a professional army of Persians, Medes, Scythians, and Bactrians, that included the famous Persian “immortals.”
  6. He established a system of laws that was uniform throughout the empire.
  7. He built roads networking throughout, especially the “Royal Road” from Ecbatana to Babylon. For the particularly important route from Susa to Sardis he set up a pony express type system allowing imperial relay-style couriers to arrive in 5 as opposed to 90 days.
  8. He connected the Red Sea to the Nile via a canal. This meant goods could travel from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
  9. He established almost 1000 miles of underground  irrigation systems.
  10. He built a magnificent palace at Persepolis and had  7×18 meters of the cliff face at Bisitun carved to his glory. He also had built a spot for the burial of Cyrus at Pasargadae and for himself at Naqsh-i Rustam.

Other sources:

    • The Heritage of Persia, by Richard N. Frye; Mazda Publishers: Copyright 2004.
    • History of the Persian Empire, by A. T. Olmsted; University of Chicago Press, Copyright 1948.
    • Jona Lendering
    • “GODS, KINGS, MEN: Trilingual Inscriptions and Symbolic Visualizations in the Achaemenid Empire,” by JENNIFER FINN; Ars Orientalis Vol. 41 (2011), pp. 219-275
    • *Iranica Online Encyclopedia

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