The Secret Strategic Plans of Darius the Great
To the north of the Persian Empire, around both sides of Caucasus Mountain, various Scythian (Palaeo-Slavian / Staroslavianskje) tribes lived. They were nomadic, i.e. not yet permanently settled in agricultural communities, whereas their neighbors had been settled into sedentary societies since Neolithic times (mainly in Mesopotamia). Thus Scythians, as well as Cimmerians in northeast Turkey, and others too such as Medeans (or even Persians themselves), along with the hunting activities, sacked and abducted of the wealth of their (mainly southern) neighbors, especially after Sumerian times. One of the key players in these events was Darius the Great.
Who Was Darius the Great?
Darius I, more commonly called Darius the Great, was born in 550 BC and died in 486 BC. He was king of Persia from 522 until his death. Today, Darius is most often remembered for his ambitious military campaigns, impressive building projects, and bureaucratic government organization. Little is known about the early life of Darius the Great, but the information we do have mostly comes from an inscription he had created to describe his rise to power. Darius was the son of a satrap (provincial governor) named Hystaspes. Young Darius was a spearman, a rather important political role, for the Persian ruler Cambyses and fought under him in Egypt.
When Cambyses died two major events happened in Darius’ life: first, he became a general and second, he killed the usurper of the throne. To justify his actions, Darius explained that the man who had taken over was named Gaumata and only impersonating Cyrus’ dead son Bardiya (Smerdis). There is debate if Darius the Great invented this story or not. Either way, he managed to take kingship through his ties to the royal Achaemenid house.
For some time, Darius had to fight to hold on to his leadership. Revolts broke out across his kingdom, but time and again he was able to put them down. He reveled in his accomplishments and declared himself the master of the entire world. Once order was restored, Darius the Great set out on military campaigns against the Scythians and the Greeks.
At home, Darius the I handled administration well. He organized his empire into provinces and sent trusted satraps to govern them. He unified the monetary system, standardized weights and measures, and made Aramaic the official language of the empire. Darius the Great ordered for major building projects in Persepolis, Susa, Babylon, and Egypt. He also had a network of roads and canals constructed to unite the kingdom and improve his empire’s wealth and trade.
In Darius the Great’s time, wealth included slaves, animal herds, agricultural products, various hand made goods (cloths, tools, saddles, jewelry), as well as young, beautiful women for reproduction and other “needs”. Besides the significant gains there were casualties, which were probably negligible for the invaders, since these were effectively balanced by the perspective of adventure and amusement.
The success of invasions was based upon sudden attacks of flexible “guerilla” bodies, composed almost exclusively by horsemen. These invasions were concentrated on regions that were scarcely guarded by comparatively few soldiers, distributed in various spots along the border. Such guards offered little more than the sensation of security to the permanent inhabitants and/or the ability to alert bigger armies, than that of real protection. Thus, while an effective army could be concentrated in order to pursue the invaders, the latter had already retreated into the vast territories they had covered in their rough and inhospitable path.
Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. (Public Domain)
Therefore, to the imperial (Assyrian, etc.) courts, the corresponding casualties of farmers, besides a blow against their prestige, also translated into fewer taxes from the invaded regions. It was only natural for the regular army to pursue the invaders, being, however, aware in advance that no significant result would be achieved. Thus, it is probable that all of the matter was finally reduced into statistical calculations as, for example, how many taxes were lost during the invasions or whether it was convenient to employ more expenses and efforts for the preservation of more members of the army.
Darius the Great on the Move
Over time the invasions came more and more often, in relation also to how the Scythian populations were (even if slowly) growing. Taking into consideration the above, but also that the Persian Empire (as any other) either would expand or would start to shrink, the emperor Darius the Great personally campaigned to the north of Danube River in 512 (most probably during summer), along with an unprecedented huge army.
Achaemenid Empire at its greatest extent under Darius I. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As the ‘father of history’, Herodotus writes, Darius, the “king of the kings” instructed the tyrants he had installed in the Ionian cities (Ephesus, Mellitus, Smyrna etc.) along with the skippers of the massive fleet, was to wait for his return for 60 days after he crossed the Danube, and only afterwards could they drive back to their homelands.
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- Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Devastating Guerilla Archers - Part I
Because the Danube Scythians (also increasingly reinforced by more soldiers) applied the tactic of falling back and feinting, this forced the Persian army to pursue, exhausting them to the point of near annihilation. Despite the Scythians’ goading, the imperial divisions were finally rescued by the Ionian fleet, since the tyrants had (most probably alerted by Darius the Great) remained at Danube River. (Indeed the Ionians had an enormous impact on the outcome a few years later at the battles at Marathon in 490 and Salamis in 480).
Darius the Great of Persia. (Public Domain)
Calculating an average daily travelling distance through the costal plans of approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) (via what is now Romania, Ukraine and S. Russia), and considering that Darius crossed the “Quite Don” River, the imperial army must have had proceeded about 1000 km (621 miles) (arriving to the East of Stalingrad, probably what is today the Rostov area). However, the Persian army did not ever seem to engage the Scythians, and certainly never battled with the Scythian king. Herodotus writes that after skirmishes and battles (and with the Scythians constantly falling back) eventually they could no longer afford or be bothered to pursue the nomads any farther. Thus, by similar calculations it is deduced that Darius the Great returned to the Danube River about 70 (or even 90) days after his departure.
Based on the above, three main questions may arise: What was the reason that Darius ordered in advance the Ionians to wait two months for his return? Could the monarch have had in mind some other grand plans?
What if the goal of crushing the Scythians along with their Getes allies to the north of Danube River was openly proclaimed, while the imperial secret aims were to include the goal of the Caucasus Mountain and surrounds (via what is today Kazakhstan and Tajikistan), thus neutralizing the Scythians living to the west of the Caspian Sea, in order to stop the Persian Empire being threatened in its very hart from the North?
For military and other reasons Darius I apparently would not spread around his plans, but shared confidences only with a few trusted generals (and his very clever father-in-law Govrias). After the failure of the Danube campaign, in order also to avoid any further negative comments against the imperial court, these plans must have had deliberately remained (well) covered up. In any case, all of the above mentioned operations, open or secret, must have been prepared also with the assistance of the well-organized imperial intelligence services.
Relief of Darius in Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Perhaps due to advanced age and to exhaustion, 20 years later in 492, during the campaign against ancient Greece (with its “annoying” democratic cities as concerned the imperial but also every authoritarian regime), Darius the Great assigned the leadership of the imperial army to Mardonious (as well as in 490 to the “gold-bearing Medeans” Datis and Artafernis), who then returned back almost idly to Sardis and Susa.
When, after some years, the Scythians were eventually “civilized” due to Persian involvement, acquiring thus their own herds and agricultural products, the invasions essentially stopped (but they then became vulnerable to the Mongolian attacks from the East). However, they maintained in their memory and in their battles the strategy of the feint - the long retreat behind the lines - resulting in the loss of their wars when their vast lands were invaded mainly from the West (French, Germans, or Polish too), but finally also from the East. It is again probable that Romans and Byzantines encountered similar strategies, but for these periods the historical record is less than enlightening.
- Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Scorched Earth Victories - Part II
- Did Darius Hijack the Persian Throne? Ancient Coup and the Rise of Darius the Great – Part I
- The Spectacular Monumental Architecture of the Achaemenid Empire
It is additionally important to point out that similar circumstances gave birth to analogous strategies as well. Such cases are considered to be the invasions of Mongols in China, which on one hand resulted in the construction of the Great Wall, but on the other hand, resulted indirectly in the appearance afterwards of the blood-thirsty hordes of Huns.
Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger. (Public Domain)
The more than 200 years that Europeans delayed in diffusing from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean, indicates again that some kind of guerrilla attacks by North American Natives against the camps of ever-encroaching settlers may be due to analogous “Siberian” tactics.
It is also probable that two to three years after the war at Crimea against Bolsheviks in 1919, and with the abundant arms that Lenin granted to Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) or the aid of Kurds and other nations, Soviet generals (as Vorossilov from Ukraine or Frunze from Turkmenistan) consulted the Turks to apply the above referred Siberian tactics (obviously in a minor scale). Thus the Helladic Greeks could arrive in 1922 at the gates of Ankara during the Helleno-Turkish war of (mainly) claiming the western Asia Minor, but the main result was the “totalitarian” annihilation of the Ionians there.
On the basis to the above theoretical approach, as concerns the diachronic interaction of the historical events, the title of the present summary review may eventually be more easily accepted by the international scientific community, and consequently by the public as well.
Nickos A. Poulianos is a Dr of Anthropology.
(With gratitude to the writer Alan Lloyd)