The Persian Empire gets a bad rap. Despite the fact that these guys went out and forged one of the largest, wealthiest, and most ridiculously powerful land empires ever assembled, it seems like every time we read about them they're getting brained over the head by some random iteration of the Greek phalanx or kicked in the nuts by a large screaming European with an out-of-control beard and a six-pack of abs so cut it looks like it was chiseled from a solid chunk of the planet Krypton. Seriously, it seems like the only time you really hear any reference to the badassitude of the Persians is in the preface to a book about how Alexander the Great came in and conquered their asses without breaking a sweat.
This is total bullcrap. Back before the Macedonian conqueror was a twinkle in his psychotic mother's evil, pulsating eye, ultra turbo hardasses like Darius of Persia were out there using their insane powers of colon destruction to lay waste to the countryside and exert their utter and complete dominance over the Middle East in the most violent and awesome ways imaginable.
It all started with a crazy asskicking maniac named Cyrus the Great. Cyrus earned such a munificent moniker by unifying the lands of Near Asia in the 6th century before Jeebus, uniting the disorganized tribes by benevolently grinding his heel into the faces of their chieftains, smashing their armies in the junk with a sledge hammer, and exerting his will like crazy all over the place. It was in this manner that Cyrus crushed the Kingdom of the Babylonians, united the lands of Mesopotamia under one ruler, and crafted the Persian Empire out of the blood of his slain foes. When he wasn't kicking people in half with his sandals Cyrus also freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, let them re-locate back to their ancestral homelands, and helped re-build the Temple in Jerusalem – a feat which earned him mega-mad props in the Bible – so that's pretty dope as well. Cyrus was eventually killed by the barbarian Queen Tomyris, a moderately-nuts chick who cut off the Persian king's head and turned it into a macabre coffee mug, but that didn't really slow down the massive Persian war machine as much as you might think. Cyrus' son Cambyses took over, added the once-powerful lands of Egypt to the Persian repertoire, and then arbitrarily biffed it all of a sudden when he accidentally stabbed himself in the leg and died of gangrene.
Immediately after Cambyses kicked it, some jerk showed up claiming to be the late Emperor's long-lost brother Smerdis – the Prince of Persia and legitimate, honest-to-crap rightful heir to the throne. Unfortunately, the problem here is that Cambyses' brother Smerdis was actually dead, having been assassinated by jackasses several years prior to the death of Cambyses. One of the few men who knew this was a Persian military officer known as Darius – a rock-hard commander of the Immortals who had served on the front lines during the conquest of Egypt, and a larynx-smashing neckpuncher who was far too badass to and honorable to just sit around while some jacknut usurped the throne. Darius, being the humorless classical-age warrior that he was, instead decided to take action - he put together a group of pissed-off nobles, charged the palace, destroyed the usurper, and took the crown for himself. With his first acts in office, Darius restored land that had been confiscated by the government, rebuilt the temples that had been destroyed by the false emperor, and married the daughter of the real Smerdis to further legitimize his place as King. Of course, I should mention that nowadays there's actually some debate among historians as to whether this now-dead ex-Emperor was actually the real Smerdis or a pretender. While we may never know whether Darius was a righteous savior of his people liberating his subjects from the reign of a usurper king or an evil bastard who simply killed the Emperor, stole his throne, and married his daughter, I would argue that either interpretation of the guy is equally badass.
Once Cyrus and his line were officially regicided, the miscellaneous tribes of the Middle East foolishly thought they could just run off and do their own thing without having to worry about any kind of ultra-gory retribution. Immediately after Darius took office he was confronted with nine open revolts, and all of a sudden he found himself needing to almost completely re-conquer the Persian Empire. Well whereas it took Cyrus and entire lifetime to forge Persia into a mighty empire Darius required just eleven months to complete the seemingly-daunting task and bring the traitorous tribes back into the fold. This is pretty damn impressive, especially considering that even Alexander the Great needed nine years to conquer Persia, and he was pretty much just fighting one army, let alone nine.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire.
The secret to Darius' success was one part brilliant leadership, one part straight-up military assbeatery on the part of his infamous Immortals, and one part Mafia-style coercion. After destroying a rebel army, Darius had their so-called "liar-king" brought before him, stripped of his war gear and bound in chains. Darius would cut off the guy's nose, ears, and tongue, poke out an eye, stuff him in a small cage, and leave him outside the gates of the palace to rot for a while and think about what he'd done. After being sufficiently subjected to the ridicule of random passers-by and appropriately humiliated, the deposed king was crucified outside the city gates. Once he was dead his skin was cut off, stuffed with straw, and the creepy messed-up scarecrow was hung outside the liar-king's former castle as a testament to what it meant to screw with Darius.
After conquering an empire the size of the continental United States in roughly the amount of time it takes most kids to apply to medical school, Darius then went around and killed all the Persian tribal chieftains who didn't help him put down the rebellion, replacing them with G's he knew would have his back when he needed it. He also re-stabilized the Empire, built roads, trade routes, and bridges, established postal and judicial systems, standardized the currency, and sent a very clear message that anyone who effed with him was going to die screaming.
I have no idea what's happening here, but I like it.
After cementing his reputation as the most bitchin' Emperor in the Fertile Crescent, Darius went about further expanding the already-ginormous Persian Empire. His first opponents were the Saka Scythians in Central Asia – badass warrior tribesmen known for their powers of face-stabbing. Despite being significantly outnumbered, Darius defeated them with an ingenious tactic; he built a massive fleet of ships in the Caspian Sea, sailed around behind the enemy lines, unloaded his troops, attacked them from the rear, and, according to Darius' own account, "smote the Scythians exceedingly". Afterwards he marched on India, captured the Indus Valley, and began mining donkey-loads of gold from the wealthy region. He even conquered the long-standing Greek settlements in Asia Minor and Thrace, marched across the Hellespont on a bridge made out of 600 wooden ships tied together, and campaigned against his enemies in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and the present-day Ukraine.
A few years later the Asia Minor Greeks, many of whom didn't realize how awesome Darius was, decided to go nuts and stage a huge ridiculous revolution. Our boy Darius wasn't about to stand for this crap, obviously, so he marched his troops around the Mediterranean coast burning and destroying everything he came across in a giant fiery death-orgy. He regained control over Asia Minor and Thrace, invaded and conquered several Aegean Islands, and even attempted to torch the mighty Greek city-state of Athens. The Athenians turned Darius' armies back at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, but the Persian King had already made his point. He retained control over the rebellious Greek city-states, and oh yeah still occupied the entire Middle East and most of Central Asia. He died four years later, one of the richest and most powerful emperors on Earth.
Under Darius, the Persian Empire reached the pinnacle of its power and the fullest extent of its size. His domain consisted of over 40 different ethnic tribes, stretched from India to the Balkans, and covered almost three million square miles – almost twice the size of Caesar's Rome, and the largest empire of Antiquity. In his 36-year reign, Darius re-built this mighty Empire into one of the world's foremost powers, married six different women, and was pretty much righteously awesome in all possible respects. He kicked asses, took names, ruthlessly destroyed anyone who pissed him off, and fought all of his duels "to the pain."
P.S. his tomb is carved out of the side of a mountain, which is sweet.
History of Iran
Boardman, John. The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988.
Curtis, John, Tallis, Nigel, and Andre-Salvini, Beatrice. Forgotten Empire. Univ. of California Press, 2005.
Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert. Osprey, 2007.
Gabriel, Richard A. The Culture of War. Greenwood, 1990.
Gershevitch, Ilya, and Fisher, William Bayne. The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.
Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Macaulay, G.C. Spark, 2004.
King, L.W., and Thompson, R.C. The Sculptures and Inscription of Darius the Great. British Museum, 1907.