Ancient History & Civilisation

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

He died in the summer of 529 BC. His corpse, redeemed from the tribe that had killed him, was brought back to Persia, where an immense stone tomb stood waiting to receive it. This had been raised, according to legend, on the location of the decisive defeat of Astyages, and was just one of a number of structures which Cyrus had sponsored in the area. Less a city than an assemblage of palaces, pavilions and gardens, the site certainly bore ample witness to the scale of the Persians’ greatness—but it also suggested just how disorientating and precipitous their rise had been. Beyond the masonry, herds of livestock still roamed the bleakness of the open hills and plains. Winds gusting across the featureless landscape coated gilded doorways and columns with dust. Even the palace complex itself, despite being built of stone, conveyed in its layout more than a hint of camps and tents. Not for nothing was the site known as Pasargadae: the name of Cyrus’ tribe. It was hardly a paradox, after all, that a nomad too might have his roots.

Now, with Cyrus dead, maneuverings among the clans and tribes of Persia would affect millions. Could a successor hope to take Cyrus’ place, or was the empire of the Persians, suddenly deprived of its founder’s charisma, doomed to vanish as rapidly as it had emerged? As the chronicles of countless vanished empires bore witness, the death of a king was a moment ripe with peril for even the greatest monarchy. Cyrus, with a dynast’s natural enthusiasm for progeniture, had fathered three daughters and—more significantly—two sons; but this guaranteed nothing. To a great empire as to a nomad’s clan, a superfluity of heirs might prove quite as perilous as none.

Farsighted as ever, though, Cyrus had understood the danger and sought to insure against it, carefully providing for the hopes of both his sons. Before his death, he had appointed the elder, Cambyses, crown prince, and the younger, Bardiya, governor of Bactria. This was the largest and most important of the eastern provinces, and even though denied a kidaris, the fluted tiara of royal power, Bardiya had been exempted from paying tribute, a privilege properly befitting a king. Whether his resentment of his brother had been mollified by such an honor, or whether it had only piqued his taste for royal status, time would have to tell. Either way, due notice had been given to the world of Cyrus’ plans for its future: Cambyses was to sit on the throne of the Persians, and Bardiya was to be his lieutenant. No one else was to have a sniff of power. Just to press this point home, a scandalous match was arranged between Cambyses and his two elder sisters, Atossa and Rhoxsane, a spectacle of incest without precedent in the traditions of Persia, but which set a satisfying block on the ambitions of any rival noble house.31 After all, who worthier of Cyrus’ daughters than Cyrus’ son? The bloodline of the great conqueror had become—like a spring watched over by the Magi or the flames of a sacred fire—something precious, to be tended and preserved from all pollution.

Even as Cyrus’ corpse was laid to rest in a sarcophagus of gold, inside a tomb carefully oriented toward the rising sun, amid the prayers and lamentations of its Magian attendants, Cambyses moved to claim his birthright. The monarchy of the world was now his. True, as he took his place upon his father’s throne, a few eyes may have turned toward his brother; but Bardiya, confirmed in the governorship of his great fiefdom in the east, gave no sign of any treacherous intent. Cyrus’ last will and testament proved to have been most cunningly constructed. Both brothers had much to gain by interlocking their interests. It might have been thought that Cambyses would have sought, as his priority, to avenge his father’s death—but that would have required him to lead a massive army into the eastern provinces, and provoke his brother’s open resentment. Equally, it might have been thought that Bardiya, possessed of a menacing power base, would have sought to force further privileges from Cambyses—but that would have been to risk the open fury of the new king. Whether tacitly or not, the two brothers formed a compact. Bardiya was to be left undisturbed in his province, but he would guard his brother’s back;32 Cambyses, every bit as ambitious for conquest as his father, would turn his armies not against the impoverished tribesmen who had killed Cyrus but toward a kingdom at the opposite end of his frontiers, rich in gold and gargantuan temples, the one great power still surviving from the old world order, and that the most timeless and celebrated of all. He would wage war on Egypt.

Such a campaign, of course, could not be rushed. The might of the pharaohs may have been much diminished from its ancient splendor, having grown dependent upon the support of shiftless mercenaries, and been leeched of income by over-mighty temple priests, but it still posed a formidable challenge. Cambyses spent four years preparing for the invasion. The subject nations of the empire were leaned upon to provide tribute and levies. Ships were built or commandeered, and a Persian king, for the first time in his country’s history, became the master of a great and powerful navy. Intelligence was gathered and carefully analyzed. When the Persians finally met the Egyptians in battle, it is said that they did so with cats pinned to their shields, reducing their opponents’ archers, for whom the animals were sacred, to a state of outraged paralysis.33 Victory was duly won. Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt, was stormed, and the bodies of the defeated left scattered across the sands; a century later, their bones could still be seen. Nor, of course, was Cambyses’ army the only prong of his assault. All the while, the battle fleet was gliding along the coast. With navy and army shadowing each other in a perfectly coordinated amphibious operation, the Persians advanced to seize their golden prize. Resistance was brutally crushed. Egypt submitted. Her people hailed as pharaoh the “Great Chief of the Foreign Lands.”

But the speed of Cambyses’ victory had been delusive. A land so ancient and mysterious was not easily absorbed into anyone’s empire. True, some measures were easily taken: the income from one town, for instance, was channeled to keep the Persian sister-queens in shoes.34 Others, however, soon began to suck Cambyses into the sinking sands. Change in Egypt had never been a straightforward matter, and it so happened that the most pressing challenge, to tame and tax the priesthood, was also the most intractable. Cambyses, brutal in a way that native pharaohs had never dared to be, did succeed in forcing requisitions from the bloated estates of the temples, but the effort took him four years and naturally won him the eternal enmity of the priests. No effort was spared by them to blacken his name, and Cambyses would ever after be remembered in Egypt as a lunatic, much given to murder and to gibbering mockery of the gods. Sometimes he was even accused of combining both pastimes, as when he was supposed to have spitted a bull worshipped by the Egyptians as divine.

Lies, all lies. Far from having jeered at the sacred beast, as the black propaganda would have it, Cambyses had actually behaved with exemplary propriety, ordering the dead bull embalmed and reverently laid to rest. Just as Cyrus had done, he sought to show himself scrupulously respectful of foreign gods, no matter how outlandish. After all, as pharaoh, he had become a son of Ra himself. To a man only one generation away from wearing leather trousers, the grandiosity of Egyptian traditions, aureate like no other, must have provided scope for considerable reflection. Too much scope, perhaps: for while the Egyptian priesthood came to regard Cambyses as an oppressive maniac, so too, and far more fatefully, did the Persian clan chiefs. Cyrus, even as he conquered the world, had never forgotten his roots, and as a result he had been loved, and called the “father” of his people—but Cambyses would be remembered by the Persians in a very different way, as “cruel and haughty,” and they would label him a “despot.”35 As evidence, spectacular stories of his savagery would be adduced: how he had used his cupbearer for target practice, and shot him dead; how he had buried twelve noblemen alive and upside-down. More smears? Perhaps—and yet surely reflecting memories of a genuine crisis, one with which the Medes in Cambyses’ entourage would have been only too familiar, of a king intolerant of any hint of opposition, and resolved to break the will of the chiefs of rival clans. Many of these, having gone on the Egyptian adventure, had been kept securely by Cambyses’ side, where they could serve their king as hostages as well as lieutenants. Not all were in Egypt, however. Despite the absence of the court, Persia remained the surest fount of royal power. Whoever could master the heartland might also master the empire beyond. Cambyses’ long absence in Egypt served to make this an increasingly suggestive calculation. Treason began to be muttered in the clan lands of the Persians.

Three decades previously, the Median chiefs, in their desperation to topple Astyages, had been reduced to countenancing a foreigner as king; but the Persian nobility, even as they chafed under the imperiousness of Cambyses, had a more acceptable alternative to hand. Bardiya was not only the son of Cyrus the Great, but also—and just as importantly—proficient in all the qualities that the Persians most admired in a king. His physical strength had won him the nickname “Tanyoxarces,” or “Mighty-frame,” and his skill with the bow—the Persians’ weapon of choice—was legendary.36 That he had remained the master of the troublesome eastern marches for almost a decade was ample evidence of his talents as a warlord. In other ways, too, Bardiya had proved himself his father’s son. Like Cyrus, it appears, he could conciliate as well as fight. Sensitive to the resentments of the Persian aristocracy, he was also solicitous of the subject peoples, who were increasingly weighed down by the exactions of Cambyses. Whispering it to those who mattered, Bardiya began to moot a startling measure: perhaps, for three years, the subjects of the Persian people might be exempted from providing tribute and further levies to the king? Not that Cambyses would ever agree to that, of course. But a new king? A new king might agree . . .

Such sedition could hardly be kept quiet for long. Spies were everywhere. Cambyses, his African conquests by now secured, woke abruptly to the menace at his rear. Despite all his great achievements, which had seen him extend the supremacy of the Persian people far into the Libyan desert and even into the land of the fabled Ethiopians, “the tallest and best-looking of all men in the world,”37 he had been too long away from home. By early 522 BC, having set out at last on the long road back to Persia, Cambyses found himself in a desperate race against time. Although he still had his crack troops with him—and much of the nobility as well—events were slipping out of his control. On March 11, Bardiya openly laid claim to the throne. A month later, he was being hailed as king throughout the eastern provinces.38 Would the empire of the Persian people, raised up to such splendor by Cyrus, now be shattered on the ambitions of his rival sons, break into separate halves, or maybe crumble away entirely? There seemed no escape from the looming fratricide.

And then accident—or something very like an accident—intervened.39 Cambyses, as he leaped onto his horse to continue his advance through Syria, was said to have wounded himself in the thigh with his sword. Gangrene set in. Within days he was dead. A startling misadventure—and most convenient in its timing, if true. The obvious beneficiary, of course, was Bardiya, now left as Cyrus’ only surviving male heir, and therefore king by right as well as might. All had been foreseen by the Magi, who had glimpsed, in the spectacle of a headless baby born to Rhoxsane, the extinction of Cambyses’ line, although the Egyptian priests, more malicious and inventive, would whisper that Cambyses had brought the horror on himself—for he was said to have kicked his sister-bride in the stomach, killing not only the fetus but the queen. Now, in Cambyses’ childlessness, there seemed a welcome chance of peace—and Bardiya moved quickly to seize it. In July, he was formally invested by the Magi, dressed in the robes of his father and the royal kidaris. At the same time, he married Atossa, Cambyses’ surviving sister-bride. Succession and bloodline: both now seemed secured. Who else was there, after all, to challenge Bardiya for the monarchy of the world?

But while the new king, confident of his supremacy, withdrew for the summer to the cool of Ecbatana, conspiracy and rumor still swirled across the baking lowland plains.40 Whether accident or not, the death of Cambyses presented a fearsome temptation to others aside from Bardiya. On the trunk road which led from Syria to the Zagros, the royal army now stood leaderless. But for how long? The highest-ranking officers, scions of great families, had returned from the African adventure battle-hardened and intimate with the workings of power, often beyond their years. Cambyses’ “lance-bearer,” for instance, a distant cousin of the king by the name of Darius, was a mere twenty-eight. Rank, in the Persian court, was measured by proximity to the royal person, so the young Darius’ title, far from implying menial status, had been a splendid and prestigious honorific. It marked him out publicly as a major player at court, and left him privy to the most sensitive royal secrets. In the weeks leading up to Cambyses’ death, he could not have been better placed to sift intelligence on the coup.

To sift—and to analyze. For Darius could see, with the pitiless eye of a born politician, that Bardiya’s position might not be as strong as it had originally appeared. The clan chiefs’ loyalty was divided and unsure. A manifesto of tribute reform, however welcome to the subject nations, was unlikely to prove popular with the Persian ruling class. Bardiya, if his coffers were not to be emptied, would have to recoup the loss of revenue somehow. Since he had no wish to commit political suicide, the new king could hardly put the squeeze on his own supporters; but with much of the nobility far away in Syria, and in Cambyses’ camp, an alternative source of income appeared ready to hand. The orders duly went out. The estates of those regarded as Bardiya’s opponents, their “pastures and herds, their slaves and houses,”41 all were confiscated. This windfall, however, urgently needed though it was, came at a fearful cost. The split in the nobility was confirmed. In the eyes of many Persians, Bardiya had branded himself “a disgrace to his country, and to his ancient throne.”42 One king that summer had already passed away; now plans were hurriedly made for the disposal of a second.

The conspirators were seven in total. All were of the highest rank. Among them was Darius, the young lance-bearer of Cambyses—and an Achaemenid. Not that membership in Persia’s foremost clan necessarily guaranteed him leadership of the plotters, for it was shared by a second conspirator, a wealthy grandee by the name of Otanes, who also appears to have had an eye on the throne. Furthermore, according to a later tradition, it was Otanes who had first organized the conspiracy—with Darius invited to join only as an after-thought. But this version does not quite add up. For a supposed late-comer, Darius was acknowledged as the conspiracy’s linchpin with remarkable speed. His status, right from the beginning, appears to have been preeminent. Linked by blood to Cyrus, he also stood at the heart of the web that bound together the seven conspirators. One of them, Gobryas, was both his father-in-law and the husband of his sister: marriage ties could hardly have bound the two any tighter. Darius’ brother, Artaphernes, a man of rare daring and intelligence, was also, although not one of the seven chief conspirators, ready to move on whatever was decided. More than a hint, then, of a family affair. Wherever one looks, Darius seems to loom as the ringleader of the plot.

Why, then, the insistence that he had not been in on it from the start? How might he have benefited from this apparent distortion of the time frame? What, to put it bluntly, might he have had to cover up? One obvious and fateful answer suggests itself—regicide. After all, who better placed than a king’s lance-bearer to plot the murder of a king? Such an act of treachery would have been regarded even by Cambyses’ enemies as beyond the pale. While Darius would soon prove himself as bold as he was ruthless, he was never one to flaunt his crimes. As a result, the truth of his guilt or otherwise is forever lost to us.43 Yet if Darius’ involvement in the death of Cambyses must be reckoned, not proven, his role in spurring forward the plot against Bardiya is far more certain. When Otanes, urging a course of prudence, suggested the recruitment of more conspirators, and playing for time, Darius argued for immediate action. They should rely, he insisted, not on force of numbers, but on speed and surprise. To waver would be to lose their advantage. The greater their daring, the greater their chances of success.

With his brother, Artaphernes, and a majority of the seven backing him, Darius had his way. His calculations had been precise. A rare opportunity was indeed now opening. As the conspirators and their train, following the Khorasan Highway, closed in on the foothills of the Zagros, they would have felt the violent heat of summer on the plains starting to diminish. Autumn was on its way. Soon, the king would be descending from the mountains. If the assassination squad could ambush him on open ground, somewhere on the road between Ecbatana and the heartland of royal power in Persia, then he might be dispatched with relative ease. Practiced horsemen all—for there had never been a Persian nobleman not raised in the saddle—the seven conspirators and their accomplices rode at a scorching pace, desperate not to lose their chance. By September, they had arrived at the borders of Media. Ahead of them lay the Khorasan Highway, twisting through the mountains up to Ecbatana. And descending it, approaching them, somewhere, was Bardiya.

News of his progress would have been easily come by. The road was always busy. Merchants, profiting from the consolidation of Persian authority, had begun to throng the great highway in growing numbers, businessmen from the wealthy trading cities of the lowlands, their talk an exotic babel, their laden pack animals clopping in tow.44 Those coming from Ecbatana would have been able to assure the conspirators that the king had indeed left his summer capital, that he was on the move, that he was not far ahead of them. Then, with Bardiya drawing ever nearer, the traffic on the road would have grown even more varied, the king’s lackeys and outriders increasingly in evidence, their costumes rich, their beards and hair elaborately curled, their peacock extravagance alerting travelers to the approach of their master, the King of Persia, the King of the World.

Nevertheless, amid all the clamor and clarions and color, traces of a far more ancient order still abided. By late September, as the conspirators pressed along the northern edge of Nisaea, the most fertile of the Zagros valleys, they would have been able to mark the most dramatic of these. Away from the courtiers and caravans on the highway, covering the clover-rich pastureland, there spread a spectacle familiar to numberless generations; indeed, a reminder of ways more primordial than Media itself. Horses, white horses, covered the plain—as many as 160,000 of them, it was said. These were the same breed that had been paid in tribute to the Assyrians almost two centuries before, “the best, and the largest”45 in the world, for not even the fabulous kingdoms of India—where, as was well known, every animal grew to a prodigious size—had anything to compare. Once the Medes had been nomads, and now they were the subjects of a foreign monarchy; but riding across the Nisaean plain, abreast of the shimmering herds, they knew themselves supreme as the tamers of horses still. A splendid consolation to them in their slavery: for the white horses, so strong and swift and beautiful, were regarded by the peoples of the Zagros as creatures sacred, bound by mysterious ties of communion to the divine, and to their king.

Even the conquering Persians acknowledged this. At Pasargadae, a horse from Nisaea would be sacrificed every month before the hallowed tomb of Cyrus himself. Perhaps that was why Bardiya, turning off the Khorasan Highway and pausing in his descent toward the lowlands, lingered in the presence of the herd. Whether he sought legitimization, or a sign from the heavens, or perhaps just the reading of bad dreams, he would have found in Nisaea ready experts on hand. Magi, interpreters of all that was mysterious, were the guardians of the sacred horses too. Did Bardiya summon these masters of ritual to his presence and ask them what his future might hold? Perhaps. What is certain, however, is that on September 29, 522 BC, a man calling himself Bardiya was in Nisaea, in a fort named Sikyavautish—and that it was there that Darius finally tracked him down.

What happened next would be retold by all those who traced their lineage from the seven leaders of the assassination squad. Many versions must have been elaborated over the years. All agreed, however, that Bardiya was taken wholly by surprise. It seems that the conspirators and their followers, coolly riding up to the gates of the fortress, baldly announced that they had come to see the king. The guards, overawed by the rank of the new arrivals, scurried to let them in. Only in the courtyard, as they approached the royal quarters, did anyone think to challenge them—but by then it was too late. The assassins, overpowering the courtiers in their path, burst into Bardiya’s chamber. The king, it is said, was with a concubine. Desperately, he sought to stave off his attackers with the leg of a broken stool, but to no avail. It is also said that it was Darius’ brother, “faithful Artaphernes,” who finally plunged the dagger home.46

And Bardiya, the son of Cyrus, King of the Persians, slumped dead to the ground.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!