Artaxerxes III


Artaxerxes III (OP *Artaxšaça "whose power (is established through) truth") was the sixth Great King in the Achaemenid line proper (r. 359/8-338 BCE). His reign saw a great success, the reconquest of Egypt, but his assassination by a high-ranking courtier shows that some sort of internal strife had fomented in the Persian elite during his lifetime.


Artaxerxes' birthname was Ochus. He was politically active as general under his father's reign, probably in Syria or the Levant sometime between 368 and 358 BCE (Georg. Syncel. 1.486.20-487.1 Dindorf). His accession was allegedly bloody and factious, as he killed many of his male relatives to win the throne and disregarded Artaxerxes II's designation of his son Darius as heir. The Greek sources condemn him for this, claiming also that he had relations with his father's wife and his own half-sister Atossa and that he loved carnage and deceit, all of which serves to contrast him sharply with his father and his reputation for clemency (Diod. 15.93.1; Plut. Art. 26-30; Iust. 10.3.1; Curt. 10.5.23; Polyaen. 7.17; Val. Max. 4.2.7; Briant 2002, 681; Waters 2014, 192f.). Unfortunately, there is no way of checking these statements, since the Babylonian documentary evidence merely shows that Artaxerxes III ascended the throne between December 359 and April 358 (Parker 1942, 16f.; Boiy 2006).


Though Artaxerxes' reign was quite long, little is known of its history. Beyond scattered allusions in Greek sources, only Diodorus provides a confused and uneven narrative.

Early in his reign, problems seem to have manifested in Asia Minor, specifically with the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Artabazus. The latter revolted with some success (Diod. 16.22.1; FGrH 105 F4; Diod. 16.34.1f.), but was eventually forced into exile in Macedon (Diod. 16.52.3). It seems likely that his revolt was part of the same dynamic of competition and unrest that had already plagued the last years of Artaxerxes II (Weiskopf 1989).

It seems likely that Artaxerxes undertook a sustained and ultimately successful attempt to reconquer Egypt during his reign. A first failed attempt to do so probably took place in 351 BCE, as the Athenian orator Isocrates was able to mock him for it in 347/6 BCE (Isoc. 5.101; Dem. 15.11f.; Diod. 16.40.3). Soon after a revolt broke out in a number of Phoenician cities under Tennes of Sidon and on Cyprus, which naturally impacted the Great King's ability to engage Egypt (Diod. 16.41-45). Though the chronology is again uncertain, these revolts were probably defeated before October 345, when a Babylonian chronicle documents prisoners from Phoenicia being taken to Susa and Babylon (ABC 9, p. 114; Briant 2002, 683). The revolt may have been due to the economic burden placed upon Phoenicia by the Egyptian campaign, for instance for shipbuilding (Kuhrt 2007, 411). In 343/2 Artaxerxes invaded Egypt once more (Diod. 16.46.4-51) and was finally successful, pushing the pharaoh Nectanebo II out of the country into Ethiopia, making him the last indigenous pharaoh in history (Lloyd 2000). The Great King's reign as pharaoh over Egypt in his last years is painted in harsh colours by our sources and echo the negative stereotypes and tropes levelled against Cambyses (Diod. 16.51.2; Ael. VH 4.8; Waters 2014, 196). The reason for this portrayal is probably that Artaxerxes plundered some of the temples and inflicted other punishments on the Egyptian populace and elite for breaking the allegiance to the empire, a violation of arta, the king's justice and truth. Outside Egypt, Artaxerxes was lauded and made sure to praise himself for his deeds (Theopompus FGrH 115 F263a-b; Diod. 16.51.3), stressing the parallels between himself and the dynasty's founder Darius I (cf. also the seal SA³a).

At the very end of Artaxerxes' reign, the Macedonian king Philip II began to make moves at the Bosporus, though not very successfully, as the local satraps sent support to the important port city of Perinthus (Diod. 16.75.1f.). At that point these manoeuvres were no more threatening (perhaps even rather less), than the invasions of the Spartans in the early fourth century under Artaxerxes II. There is also little to suggest that there was any thought of extensive conquest at this point on behalf of Philip, especially since nominally Persia and Macedon may have been allies (Arr. Anab. 2.14.2); furthermore, the Persian Empire had just been strengthened once more by military success and booty in Egypt (Briant 2002, 688-690).


In August or September 338 BCE (BM 71537 III' rev.9-10; ADART V, 11), Artaxerxes III and almost all his sons were poisoned by the chiliarch Bagoas, who allegedly wanted to control the king's young and old remaining heir, Arses, who ruled as Artaxerxes IV. Artaxerxes was subsequently buried in a rock-cut tomb at Persepolis, probably in Tomb V beside that of his father.

The Inscriptions

Artaxerxes III was the last Achaemenid to leave known royal inscriptions on stone. They mainly document his (uncompleted) embellishment of Persepolis and generally attest to a desire to reconnect with the heroic past through their archaizing, but often error-prone language (Waters 2014, 193f.). At Persepolis he inscribed four copies of the same text, marking his addition of stone staircases to the palace of Artaxerxes I (Palace H) and to the Tachara built by Darius I (A³Pa). This text notably gives a very long lineage, all the way back to Arsames, the grandfather of Darius I. Of the gods added to the invocation formula by Artaxerxes II Mithra is still present alongside Ahuramazda, but Anahita is now missing once again. Tomb V at Persepolis bears an inscription, a copy of DNe, one of Darius I's tomb inscriptions, that can be assigned to Artaxerxes II or III based on linguistic criteria, but since it does not name a king, the tomb's owner is not clear (A²/³Pa or A³Pa/b). The debate about whether Tomb V or its neighbour, Tomb VI, is Artaxerxes II's is hence ongoing (Schmidt 1970, 99; Schmitt 2000, 119-122; cf. Lecoq 1997, 271f.). Since the inscription imitated lists the extent of the Empire in the same terms as under Darius I, Artaxerxes III, the conqueror of Egypt, may be a slightly more likely candidate (but cf. Kuhrt 2007, 484). Finally, there is a very fragmentary Akkadian inscription from Susa, found on a limestone socle, evidence of a building project Artaxerxes III completed.


Boiy, Tim, "Aspects chronologiques de la période de transition (350–300)", in: Pierre Briant/Francis Joannès (eds.), La transition entre l'empire achéménide et les royaumes hellénistiques (Persika 9), Paris 2006, 37–100.

Briant, Pierre, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, Winona Lake, IN 2002.

Kuhrt, Amélie, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period, London 2007.

Lloyd, Alan B., "The Late Period (664-332 BC)", in: Ian Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford 2000, 364-387.

Parker, Richard A., Waldo H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology: 626 B.C. - A.D. 75, Chicago 1942.

Waters, Matt, Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE, Cambridge 2014.

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Artaxerxes III', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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