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Darius III (Codomannus)

Darius III - Roman mosaic (79 B.C.). Source:

The last Persian Great King of the Achaemenid dynasty - Darius III Codomannus - is remembered in history as the premier enemy who was beaten by Alexander. Darius had to abandon his commanding battlefield position twice, both at Issus and Gaugamela, under the pressure of the attacks by Alexander and his Macedonian Companion cavalry. With Darius the Achaemenid empire ceased to exist.


Darius had inherited a Persian empire that had been going through a period of revitalisation. Under king Artaxerxes III Ochus - one of the most able but also most violent Achaemenid monarchs - the empire had tightened its grip on the peoples living under its sway. Egypt was reconquered and Persian rule had been firmly re-established throughout West and Central Asia. However, Artaxerxes' harsh methods had made him lots of enemies in the court circles and he was poisoned in 338 BC. The next king, his son Arses, proved to be a weak non-entity who was quickly disposed of in another court intrigue. It is no surprise that Alexander's father Philip II launched his first advance campaign against Persia during the wobbly reign of Arses (a.k.a. Artaxerxes IV). Egypt too had managed to brake away from Persia once more.

This was the situation that Darius III inherited when he ascended to the 'peacock' throne in 336 BC - the very same year that Alexander became king of Macedon. Darius was not a close relative of earlier Persian kings - he might have been a cousin of Artaxerxes III. But the cruel Artaxerxes had already deprived Persia of most of its crown princes, so there were few obvious candidates for the kingship. Darius appeared to have been just the ruler that Persia needed. He was reputedly mild and forgiving - quite a relief from Artaxerxes. But he also had a reputation for bravery in war, having killed a warrior champion of the fierce Cadusians in single handed combat. For this feat, which happened during a military campaign under Artaxerxes probably around 340 BC, Darius had been rewarded with the satrapy of Armenia. In the first year of his rule as a king, Darius reclaimed Egypt. He also sent his foremost general Memnon the Rhodian against the Macedonian advance forces in Asia. Memnon was initially succesful in curtailing the Macedonian exploits.

Some of our main sources have contributed to the popular image of Darius as a cowardly leader who was no match for Alexander's heroism at all. Neither in Arrian nor in Plutarch Darius comes alive as a character. Arrian simply dismisses him as "feeble and incompetent", and that is about it. Curtius has recorded detailed speeches of Darius, but scholars fear these are personal inventions modelled after Herodotus. It is Diodorus who presents us with a totally different approach. Diodorus describes Darius as a clever strategist and an energetic king who "wasted no time". Even his final escape from the battlefield at Gaugamela was executed with brilliant tactical insight, claims Diodorus.


If one examines Darius' conduct of the "great war" one can not ignore the impression that Darius deliberately tried to smother the conflict by creating various - at least six - independent theatres of war in an effort to divert Alexander's attention. Around early 333 BC his trusted general Memnon died of illness. This was an enormous blow for Darius' overall plans. It appears that only after Memnon's death Darius began hastily preparations for a pitched battle against the invaders, which lead to his first solid defeat at Issus. The important contingents from Bactria for example never arrived in time at Babylon to be included in the defense army.

At Issus Alexander 'confiscated' Darius' wife (and sister) Statira, his daughters Statira and Drypetis, his son Ochus and his mother Sisigambis as the 'spoils' of war. Though Alexander treated the Royal family with respect, Darius' wife Statira died in childbirth somewhere within the two years between Issus and Gaugamela. According to Curtius the news of his wife's death reached Darius shortly before his defeat at Gaugamela. That would allow plenty of room for speculation that Statira's child was conceived by Alexander, not Darius. Arrian however goes to great lengths to convice his audience that Alexander never touched "the most beautiful woman in Asia" (Arr. 4.20). If one accepts Arrian, Statira must have died early in 332 BC.

After Issus Darius had returned to Babylon on the double and had again started raising forces. While Issus was fought in November 333 BC, Darius was back in Babylon long before the year was out and according to Diodorus he was "not crushed in spirit". This may be the best indication of the personality we are dealing with. Many other kings might never have survived such a humiliating military disaster. But Darius remained firmly 'in the saddle' and in 331 BC he faced Alexander for the second time, at Gaugamela, now with an improved army that came close to matching the Macedonians.


Darius fled to Ecbatana and in July 330 BC - whilst heading for safety in distant Bactria - he was murdered by his kinsmen Bessus, Nabarzanes and Barsaentes. Our sources are unanimous in stating that Darius had desired to battle Alexander again, even with the ramshakle remnants of his once glorious army. Bessus and his conspirators however must have decided that enough was enough. The big mystery is not why Darius was murdered. The mystery is why he was not disposed of much earlier. He had remained undisputed as the Great King after Issus and his rule even lasted for many months after the empire had collapsed at Gaugamela, even though the Royal capitals of Susa, Babylon and Persepolis were lost. It is quite difficult to reconcile these facts with the popular image of a feeble, imcompetent and cowardly king.

The common Macedonian soldier Polystratus found the dying Darius, who was pierced by javelins and abandoned, and Polystratus was the last soul to speak to him. He brought Darius his last drink of water, and Darius allegedly complained that he was not able anymore to reward Polystratus for his kindness - then closed his eyes for ever. The traitor Bessus crowned himself as the new Persian king Artaxerxes V, but no historian has ever accepted Bessus' rule as genuine. Bessus and Barsaentes were both executed by Alexander, Nabarzanes was pardoned.

Darius is commonly believed to have been born around 380 BC. He was fifty years of age when he died. His original Persian Royal name was 'Darayavaush', to be translated as "he who is holding the good".

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