Darius in the Shadow of Alexander by Pierre Briant - book review: Darius wasn't Alexander, but was he really that bad?

The denigration of Darius, Briant suggests, is a construct of classical authors preoccupied with the idea of mimesis

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The Independent Culture

Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty which ruled the mighty Persian empire, is notably depicted in wide-eyed horror in a battle mosaic found at Pompeii. This is the first book devoted to the "historical memory" of the king; it is not a biography. The lack of certain historical knowledge about Darius is a principal focus of this scholarly work. It's not that he was ignored by classical writers, but their focus was Alexander rather than him.

Greek and Roman sources have delighted in painting Darius as an effete oriental, lacking Western, masculine virtues. No wonder he lost the empire his illustrious forebears had created: when his wife, daughter and mother were taken captive after an early battle in Alexander's campaign, he was so lacking in martial fortitude that he is said by ancient writers to have bargained with the kingdom to get them back. He was "the softest of men and the least sensible in warfare".

Darius's luxuriating was contrasted with Alexander's self-denial. As the historian and Roman senator Arrian said of Alexander, "with regard to bodily pleasures, he enjoyed perfect self-control; where pleasures of the mind were concerned, he was insatiable only for men's praise"; whereas Darius took items of luxury "even though he was going on a military expedition".

The denigration of Darius, Briant suggests, is a construct of classical authors preoccupied with the idea of mimesis – the imitation of great men according to descriptions which were repeated down the centuries. Briant notes that the Emperor Augustus would copy precepts and examples from great lives in which the life of Darius III would be used as an example of what not to do as a monarch.

The disparagers tell us how in battle, when his chariot became obstructed by the corpses of his men, Darius mounted a horse that had been tethered behind – ready for him to run away. As Briant points out, the alternative explanation is not examined: that Persian monarchical values required the king to stay alive as the embodiment of the kingdom. He was doing his duty by leaving when the battle was clearly lost.

In a search for the historical Darius, Briant brings to life specialist work tracing the war against Alexander through images on coins, as well as through the Babylonian astronomical diaries, classical histories and many versions of the Alexander Romance. Yet within the meaning of biography in ancient history, Darius remains yet unknowable.