An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Darius, King of Kings

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers Darius, King of Kings.


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Darius, King of Kings

E.H. GombrichSomething very strange happened between 550 and 500. I don’t really understand it myself, but perhaps that’s what makes it so interesting. In the high mountain chain that runs north of Mesopotamia a wild mountain tribe had long been living. They had a beautiful religion: they worshipped light and the sun and believed it to be in a state of constant warfare with the dark – that is, with the dark powers of evil.

These mountain people were the Persians. For hundreds of years they had been dominated, first by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. One day they had had enough. Their ruler was a man of exceptional courage and intelligence called Cyrus, who was no longer prepared to put up with the oppression of his people. He led his band of horsemen down onto the plain of Babylon. The Babylonians looked down from their mighty ramparts and laughed at the little band of warriors that dared attack their city. Yet, under Cyrus’s leadership, they succeeded, through courage and guile. And so Cyrus became lord of that great realm.

His first act was to free all the peoples held in captivity by the Babylonians. Not content with his great kingdom, however, Cyrus marched on to conquer Egypt, only to die on the way. But his son, Cambyses, succeeded. Egypt fell and the pharaoh was deposed. That was the end of the Egyptian empire, which had lasted almost three thousand years! And with its end, this little Persian tribe became master of nearly all the known world. But only nearly: they hadn’t yet swallowed up Greece. That was still to come.

It came after the death of Cambyses, during the reign of a great king named Darius. He governed the vast Persian empire – which now stretched from Egypt to the frontiers of India – in such a way that nothing happened anywhere that he himself had not decreed. He built roads so that his orders might be carried without delay to the furthest parts of his kingdom. And even his highest officials, the satraps, were spied on by informers known as ‘the king’s eyes and ears’. Darius now began to extend his empire out into Asia Minor, along whose coasts lay the cities of the Ionian Greeks.

Now the Greeks were not used to being part of a great empire, they had no wish to be ruled by a Persian king, nor would they pay him tribute. So they rebelled, and threw out the Persian governors.

‘Never before had the king of Persia, the King of Kings – for that was his title – been so insulted.’

Never before had the king of Persia, the King of Kings – for that was his title – been so insulted. That this insignificant tribe, these nobodies, should dare to challenge him, the ruler of the world! He dealt with the Ionian cities in Asia Minor in less than no time.

He then sent his son-in-law, with a new and mighty fleet, to sail against Athens. They conquered many islands on their way and destroyed a lot of cities. They finally dropped anchor not far from Athens, at a place called Marathon. There, the whole great Persian army disembarked, ready to march on Athens. It is said that they numbered seventy thousand men, as many as the entire population of Athens. With roughly ten thousand soldiers the Athenian army was outnumbered seven to one. Their fate was surely sealed. But not quite. For the Athenians had a general named Miltiades, a brave and able man, who had lived for many years among the Persians, and knew their fighting tactics. Added to which, the Athenians all knew what was at stake: their freedom and their lives, and those of their wives and children. So there at Marathon they formed ranks, and fell upon the startled Persians. And they were victorious. The Persians suffered heavy losses. Those remaining took to their ships and fled.

Such a victory! And against such odds! Others in his place might have thought of nothing but celebration. But Miltiades was shrewd as well as brave. He had noted that instead of sailing back the way they had come, the Persian ships had turned towards Athens, which lay undefended and open to attack. But as luck would have it, the distance from Marathon to Athens was greater by sea than by land. For ships had to negotiate a long spit of land easily crossed on foot. This Miltiades did. He sent a messenger ahead, who was to run as fast as he could, to warn the Athenians. This was the famous Marathon Run after which we call our race. Famous, because the messenger ran so far and so fast that all he could do was deliver his message before he fell down dead.

Meanwhile Miltiades and his army had taken the same route, marching in tremendous haste. This was just as well, for no sooner had they reached the harbour at Athens than the Persian fleet appeared over the horizon. But there was no more fighting: at the sight of their heroic enemy, the disheartened Persians turned tail and sailed for home. And not just Athens, but the whole of Greece was saved. This was 490.

How the great Darius, King of Kings, must have cursed when he learnt of the defeat at Marathon! But at the time there was little he could do about Greece, for a revolt had broken out in Egypt which had to be suppressed. He died soon after, leaving his son and successor, Xerxes, to take revenge on Greece once and for all.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Darius and the Persian Empire

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS2)
The ancient Greeks at war

BBC In Our Time
Persepolis

BBC Radio 4
Through Persian Eyes – Professor Ali Ansari

BBC News Magazine
Alexander the not so Great: History through Persian eyes – Professor Ali Ansari

National Geographic
Who was Darius I?

History.com
The Persian Empire

Khan Academy
The Rise of Persia

The Yale Blog
The Persian Wars: Why We Must Attend to Sparta – Paul A. Rahe

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

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The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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