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Darius the Would-Be King: Ambition, Power, and the 'Best Man' in Herodotus' Histories

Carolyn Dewald

One prominent organizing element in Herodotus's narrative analysis of political power is his portrait of powerful and ambitious Eastern kings: Croesus and Cyrus at the outset, Xerxes at the end.  Darius, in significant ways the most powerful and successful of them all, occupies and thematically ties together the narrative of Books 3 to 6 of the Histories.  He emerges as one of the seven co-conspirators against the Magi in Book 3, and as the proponent of monarchy in the constitutional debate shortly thereafter.  It has been noted that many of the anti-monarchical generalizations of the other two speakers become realities in the reigns of Darius and his son, Xerxes.  Here I explore a related, somewhat subtler issue:  how the details of Darius' rule as king map oddly onto his claims for mounarchiê in the debate.  Darius makes two basic points in his speech.  First, since the other two types of government both devolve into monarchy, but monarchy of a sort corrupted by their beginnings, it is useful to start with the 'best man' as ruler.  Secondly, he claims that that generalization has been borne out in Persian history, since it was under a single ruler that the Persians gained their freedom, eleutheriê, from the Medes.

I will argue that Herodotus uses the portrait of Darius' words and deeds as monarch, in their stark contrast to his arguments for monarchy, to critique Darius' claims for the rule of the  'best man' and to tease out what such a rule means for others in his kingdom and the relation between his freedom and theirs.  Darius's role in the middle books of the Histories shows on a more elaborate scale what the Deioces episode showed in Book 1, at the beginning of Medo-Persian autocracy:  however good the intentions or behavior of an ambitious and clever ruler, the government he creates ultimately oppresses his people, in significant ways constraining/perverting their sexual, economic, and cultural lives.  The freedom of the single, talented and ambitious individual puts the freedom and happiness of those under him at risk.

In the constitutional debate, Darius claims that monarchy first brought the Persians their freedom, and that therefore monarchy should continue to be the Persian system of governance.  But his first act as monarch is to lock up and kill most of the male relatives of one of his six co-conspirators against the Magi and to suborn the loyalty of Intaphrenes' own wife (3.119).  By collecting the sexual and familial loyalties of the top Persian families around him, Darius leaves his son Xerxes enmeshed in complex familial relationships and rivalries that will complicate and weaken Persian military ambitions.

His economic goals bring problems too; Darius needs money for his imperial ambitions.  Before listing the resources and tax basis for the empire, Herodotus comments that the Persians call Darius a kapêlos, a retail merchant (3.89.3).  His imperial greed provides the unspoken undertone to his treatment of the Paionians (5.12-15):  when he sees the industry of the sister of the two Paionians, he has the whole people packed up and shipped off to Phrygia, in Asia Minor (5.98).  More globally, much of the end of Book 3, and all of Books 4 through 6 contain a long string of imperial projects of conquest or reconquest; much of the energy of his administration is devoted to getting more land and people under Persian rule.  This is the problem with 'bestness' -- it becomes (necessarily, Atossa will argue at 3.134) an unending drive for domination.

Culturally, talented underlings under the monarch must disguise their own private individual ambitions, which leads to dishonesty and confusion in the realm, as the careers of Atossa, Histiaeus, and Mardonius illustrate. 'The Lie' turns out to be an active principle in Darius' kingdom, and the freedom promised by the rule of the 'best man' illusory.

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Herodotus’ “Constitutional Debate” From the Inside Out

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