Darius III


History has taken notice of Darius III, the last Achaemenid king of kings (r. 336-330), mainly as an antagonist, the last degenerate representative of a doomed empire, who was handily defeated by one of the greatest generals who ever lived, Alexander the Great. This perspective is directly due to intense focus of the extant Graeco-Roman source tradition on Alexander III of Macedon, who is built up as a heroic conqueror in contrast to his opponent, the cowardly last Achaemenid king, whose empire was so corrupt it ultimately perverted even the heroic Macedonian conqueror. The scarcity of historical evidence from the Persian point of view nevertheless forces us, for narrative history, to draw upon the accounts presented by these Graeco-Roman authors, especially Arrian, Q. Curtius Rufus, Diodorus, Plutarch and Justin's epitome of Pompeius Trogus, all of whom are later, secondary authors influenced by interests of their own time (Müller 2019, 25-32). Historians now seek to establish a narrative that grants the Persian perspective and the constraints and interests of Darius centre stage, in order to correct the bias of the sources (Briant 2003, 2009; Nylander 1993).


Much of our information about Darius' accession comes from Macedonian propaganda intended to weaken his legitimacy and has to be carefully dissected, while much of the rest is affected by Darius' propaganda (Briant 2002, 770-774; cf. Badian 2000, 243 n. 10 for criticism). This makes it difficult to reconstruct the events. It seems likely that in the unstable situation under Artaxerxes IV after the murder of the king's brothers, the nobility sought an alternative ruler and that revolts broke out in the Empire.

With the empire in this state, a certain Artašata (OP *Artašiyāta, "happy in justice"; Sachs 1977, 142f.), allegedly a great-grandson of Darius II and the son of Sisygambis, a daughter of Artaxerxes II, rose to exploit the troubles. On a positive reading of the sources, Artašata was a distinguished member of the Persian elite, possessing bravery and military skill, a distant, but perfectly valid connection to the royal line, and a position at court as friend of the king, bondsman, and head of courier service, and/or as satrap of Armenia. Through this, he succeeded in gaining enough support among the nobility to take the throne (Plut. Alex. 18.4; Diod. 17.6.1; Iust. 10.3.2-5; Briant 2002, 779). It is unclear whether he did so by military force and whether this occurred before or after Bagoas, a ša rēši ("courtier/attendant/eunuch") and successful chiliarch at court who had acted as kingmaker of Artaxerxes IV, had killed said Artaxerxes, thus ending the main branch of the royal line (Diod. 17.5.3-6.2; BM 40623 III.4-5 (=BHLT p. 35)). The Dynastic Prophecy just cited suggests that Artašata became king as a "[rebel] prince" (BM 40623 III.6-8), with the Greek sources elaborating that Bagoas helped him become king. However, the kingmaker once again failed to control his creation and was finally duped into drinking his own poison (Diod. 17.5.5f.).

Alternatively, however, the prominent role of Bagoas the poisoner may be no more than a trope or romance intended to cover up the usurpation by Artašata. On a negative reading of the sources, the name Kodomannos given in Justin (10.3.2-5; cf. Briant 2002, 777) can be taken to indicate that Darius III's legitimacy was largely fabricated. Though Harmatta (1969) and Schmitt (1982) suggested OI or OP *Katu-manah "of warlike mind" as an honorary name awarded Artašata for his personal valour, this solution was roundly criticised by Badian (2000, 247) on the grounds that this 'honorary title' is never heard from again after Darius took the throne. He argued that Kodomannos was the man's birth name, related to Western Semitic/Aramaic qdmwn ("Eastern"), Artašata a personal name adopted when he entered the court, as attested in the Babylonian documents, and Darius his throne name. Given the extent of the massacres among those of royal blood under Artaxerxes III and IV, Badian thought it extremely unlikely that Darius III was of any significant royal descent; he was just Achaemenid enough to be promoted by Bagoas (2000, 246-252).

At any rate, Artašata ascended the throne with full rites (Plut. Mor. 340c; Briant 2002, 777) and took the throne name Darius, potentially to underscore the connection to his great-grandfather or the parallels to Darius I, the great founding figure of the dynasty.


Darius' reign is dominated almost entirely by the struggle against Alexander's invasion. Contrary to the long traditional assessment of Darius as cowardly and inept, scholarship since the 1990s has rehabilitated his decisions as pragmatic within the constraints they were taken and stressed the positive elements to be found in the sources (Nylander 1993). Too much is known of the fight against Alexander to be presented here in any detail, but a brief summary is in order.

Already Alexander's father Philip II had prepared an invasion into the Persian Empire, which was not very successful. After the failure of his general Parmenion to hold more than a beachhead at Abydos against the Persian response (Arr. Anab. 1.11.6), and Philip's assassination, the Macedonian threat seemed under control and was not a priority of Darius. Justin preserves a tradition that presented Darius as seeking a straight fight against the invaders, which may be apocryphal or propagandistic, but gains some credence from the fact that no Persian fleet was deployed to prevent Alexander's crossing in spring of 334 BCE even though the Persians were clearly aware of the threat (11.6.8-10). It seems clear that the aim of the satrapal army that met Alexander at the Granicus in May was simply to kill the young Macedonian king, which would have ended the invasion for good (Arr. Anab. 1.15.8). While there had been a number of attempts by Greek forces to invade the Western part of the Empire, these had never been long-lived thus far, due to infighting, attrition or defeat. In this case, however, the plan failed and Alexander managed to not only win the battle, but to take over or "liberate" the Greek West of Asia Minor with relative ease in the course of 334 BCE, before turning inland where he encountered more resistance (Waters 2014, 206f.).

After the defeat of his satraps, Darius mustered troops rapidly, mainly from the Western part of the Empire, and went to meet Alexander for a pitched battle after failing to halt his progress through the Cilician Gates, a narrow and defensible pass. In November of 333, Darius' army finally met Alexander's on disadvantageous terrain at Issos and with its back to the enemy's territory, the armies having passed one another by accident (or perhaps design; Badian 2000, 256). Alexander managed to defeat Darius by threatening his life directly (Briant 2002, . Darius' survival was paramount if there was to be any chance of keeping up the resistance, and so he fled, retreating to rally his troops, muster the Eastern part of the Empire, and correct the mistakes made at Issus in the next battle, while also mounting a number of small-scale counter offensives (Briant 2002, 829-832). Unfortunately, the loss of the treasury at Damascus and the capture of the baggage train and Darius' family meant that he had now lost any sort of strategic control over the situation (Badian 2000, 258-260). Despite their clear pro-Macedonian manipulation (Diod. 17.39.2), the letters that passed to and fro between the two kings in this period and discussed a division of the empire document that Darius was now immensely constrained because Alexander was keeping his family hostage, including his heir and main wife, while Alexander could not accept a division of the empire because he could not possibly hope to defend it (Bosworth 1980, 227-230; Briant 2002, 832-840). Because of this, time was still on Darius' side, since he could still draw on the levies of the Eastern satrapies (Diod. 17.64.1f., 73.1).

The Babylonian Dynastic Prophecy may give a rare glimpse at how this long period was experienced and handled in propaganda at court, seeing as it predicts Darius rallying from defeat (at Issos?) and conquering the "Haneans", so the Macedonians, with "the aid of Enlil, Shamash and [Marduk]" (BM 40623, III.9-23 with Grayson 1975, 26; Kuhrt 1987; Neujahr 2005), blessing the land with happiness and granting tax exemptions (?). It is therefore possible that the Dynastic Prophecy was written to rally support before the battle of Gaugamela, fought on October 1, 331 BCE (Sachs and Hunger 1998, no. 330 obv. 14'-18'), this time largely on Darius' terms. Even the preparations made for this pitched battle, including a scorched earth policy to harm Macedonian foraging and morale, as well as levelling the battlefield to improve the effectiveness of cavalry, proved ineffective, partly because of Alexander's psychological trickery and partly because the Macedonians once again went for the king directly (Badian 2000, 258f.; Waters 2014, 210f.): The king fled and the army routed. Faced with a hard choice, Darius withdrew once more, leaving the heart of his Empire open by retreating into Media to Ekbatana (Diod. 17.64.1f.), perhaps in the hope that Alexander would be stalled by extensive sieges of Babylon and Susa, and that he would have time to rally yet another army to relieve his capitals. These hopes were soon dashed when Babylon capitulated and even his own troops began to abandon Darius. In the summer of 330 BCE, Darius was then forced to retreat even further northeast by Alexander's advance, allegedly growing increasingly despondent (Arr. Anab. 3.19.4f.; Curt. 5.9.13-17).

End and Legacy

The king spent his last flight towards Bactria in captivity, though not of Alexander. A conspiracy by Bessus, satrap of Bactria, Barsaentes, satrap of Arachosia and Drangiana, and the chiliarch Nabarzanes turned the king into a mere figurehead (Arr. Anab. 3.21.1), possibly because he was willing to surrender (Badian 2000, 264), and attempted to use him to rally resistance to Alexander in the East (Curt. 5.5.2; 5.10.5, 12; 5.12.6). It has been suggested that the treatment of Darius by the conspirators shows elements of the Near Eastern tradition of the substitute-king-ritual, notoriously misunderstood by the Greeks, whereby a ruler is ritually replaced by a nobody for a certain time to ward off bad omens (such as the eclipse that occurred before Gaugamela: Sachs and Hunger 1998, no. 330 obv. 14'-18') and fear of assassination (Curt. 5.9.8; 5.12.15-20; Parpola 1983, xxii-xxxii; Huber 2005; Waters 2014, 215). The use of this ritual is reported also for Xerxes and for Alexander at Babylon (Hdt. 7.15; Arr. Anab. 7.24.1-3), but is made less likely here by the fact that Darius was eventually gravely wounded and left to die by the conspirators in early July 330 BCE, probably to prevent Alexander from taking him alive or simply to stall the Macedonian's pursuit. Once the king was dead and Bessus had arrived back in his power base of Baktra, the capital of Bactria, he took the throne name Artaxerxes V and began calling himself the King of Asia, surely stressing his own distant Achaemenid lineage (Arr. Anab. 3.21.5, 3.30.4; Curt. 3.25.3, 6.6.13; Diod. 17.74.1f., 17.78.f.). After much fighting, Bessus was betrayed by his allies in spring of 329 BCE and Alexander asserted his own legitimacy as King of Asia by executing him as a traitor and burying his "predecessor", Darius III, in royal fashion (Arr. Anab. 3.22.1), while also taking over many elements of Persian kingship and imperial organisation (Briant 2009, 2010; Müller 2014; Waters 2014, 215). Darius III was married to his sister Stateira, probably in a second marriage sealed upon his accession, and had a brother named Oxyathres (Curt. 3.11.8; Diod. 17.77; Badian 2000, 251). Both were well treated by Alexander, with the latter being tasked with the execution of Bessus. Of his two sons, the one named Ochus (after Artaxerxes III), aged about 5 or 6 when he was captured at Issos (Curt. 3.11.24), was born of this second marriage, while the one named Ariobarzanes was allegedly executed by Darius for treason and would hence have to have been significantly older if he really existed (Plut. Mor. 308c). Also captured after Issos were two daughters named Stateira and Drypetis, the former of whom later married Alexander III. A third daughter from his first marriage is suggested by the fact that Darius is said to have had a son-in-law named Mithridates, who died at the Granicus (Arr. Anab. 1.15.7). Achaemenid kingship proper ended with Darius III (Wiemer 2007; Lane Fox 2007).


As with all short-lived Achaemenids, no inscriptions of Darius III are extant. In his case this may be due to the politically harassed and economically tense nature of his reign, which did not permit much in the way of building activity, the main source of our epigraphic material.


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Neujahr, Matthew, "When Darius defeated Alexander: composition and redaction in the Dynastic Prophecy", in: JNES 64/2 (2005), 101-108.

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Parpola, Simo, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, Part 2: Commentary and Appendices, Kevelaer 1983.

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Van der Spek, Robartus, "Darius III, Alexander the Great and Babylonian scholarship", in: Wouter Henkelman and Amelie Kuhrt (eds.), A Persian Perspective: essays in memory of Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (= AchHist XIII), Leiden 2003, 410-426.

Wiemer, Hans-Ulrich, „Alexander - der letzte Achämenide? Eroberungspolitik, lokale Eliten und altorientalische Traditionen im Jahr 323", in: Historische Zeitschrift 284 (2007), 281-309.

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Darius III', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/ario/rulers/dariusiii/]

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