The Magus Gaumata

29 September 522 BCE, in Pasargadae, 80 miles north of Shiraz, the magus Gaumata, masquerading as the deceased King Cambyses II’s brother Bardya, is killed by Darius the Great, the future king-of-kings of the Persian Empire.

“These then having come together, being seven in number, gave pledges of faith to one another and deliberated together; and when it came to Dareios to declare his opinion, he spoke to them as follows: "I thought that I alone knew this, namely that it was the Magian who was reigning as king and that Smerdis the son of Cyrus had brought his life to an end; and for this very reason I am come with earnest purpose to contrive death for the Magian.“ (Herodotus, “The History of Herodotus”)

Darius’ Behistun Inscription, the king of kings, the largest figure in the frieze, shown with Gaumata under his boot, receiving the blessing of the higher divinity of the Zoroastrian religion, Ahura Mazda, floating over the scene. 

Within a couple of years, Cambyses father Cyrus the Great had conquered various Near and Middle Eastern kingdoms and created a superpower 
almost out of thin air that spanned the lands from the Bosphorus to the borders of India. The next scion of the Achaemenids, his son Cambyses, just had conquered Egypt when news of a revolt in Persia reached him while he was on his return march to Persia. And then an infected wound killed the king-of-kings somewhere in Syria. Cambyses had a bit of a reputation, as a drunkard and choleric and that he had secretly killed his younger brother after he dreamed that Bardya, called Smerdis by Herodotus, would usurp his throne. While away campaigning afterwards, Gaumata, a magus, a high priest of the Zoroastrian state-religion who allegedly resembled Bardya, seized the chance and posed as the younger son of Cyrus the Great and rebelled.

A winged sphinx from Darius' palace in Susa

Darius was a member of the House of the Achaemenids and thus a relative of Cambyses, but just held the rank of a “lance-bearer”, probably an officer in the king’s lifeguards and why Cambyses men followed him remains a bit of a mystery, but they did and Darius force-marched them on the excellent Royal Roads into the heart of the empire towards Cyrus old capital Pasargadae, an auspicious place, since the old king-of-kings was buried there as well. Meanwhile, the magus Gaumata was in a bit of trouble anyway. According to the father of history, Herodotus, Gaumata had his ears cut off by Cyrus and Bardya’s father-in-law, one Otanes, who apparently smelled a rat, asked his daughter to feel for the king’s ears and when she reported he had none, the case was clear.

Darius' Immortals, his life-guard, from the Susa frieze,
now at the Louvre in Paris 

Upon his arrival in Pasargadae, Otanes and six other nobles joined Darius and they brought Gaumata to bay and killed him. Darius was crowned king-of-kings afterwards, quenched the rebellions of nine other “liar-kings”, married Parmys, the daughter of Bardya and thus closed the gap to the old ruling line of the House of the Achaemenids. Darius ruled the Persian Empire for 36 years, secured and expanded its borders and mounted an administration for his vast empire that was second to none in the world. The only major drawback was his defeat by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BCE. And if the story of his ascension, eternalised in the monumental Behistun Inscription in Kermanshah was largely a fabrication, which is rather possible, he was a king of storytellers as well.

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