Persian Rulers

    Cyrus the Great and Darius

Both Cyrus and Darius were Kings of Persia who expanded the empire by conquering vast territories and overseeing what their people were doing. Cyrus ruled for only twenty years, from 550 BC to 530 BC. Darius took over after the short rule of Cambyses, and used different approaches than Cyrus to continue building upon the Persian empire. While Darius ruled for a longer time than Cyrus, his methods were not nearly as welcoming to the people and he was not the same kind of benevolent ruler. Yet as Darius continued to conquer and his experience grew, he started to transform his approach and become more and more like the great Cyrus who built up the empire and left it in Darius’ hands.

Cyrus was a conqueror who, like most rulers of great civilizations and empires of the past, focused on expanding the empire and leaving a legacy behind him. But most leaders of great conquering empires ruled by force and intimidation. They believed fear was the way to prevent uprising for no one would dare to challenge their authority knowing the punishment for taking such actions. Cyrus disagreed with this approach.  He believed in uniting the conquered peoples with his own people of Persia, and treating those he conquered as equals to those in his own service. Cyrus believed in showing honor and respect to the leaders he conquered and often keeping people who held power in the same positions of authority which they held before he conquered them.

In 550, Cyrus conquered the King of Medes, who was his father-in-law at the time. He immediately united the people of Medes with the Persians and allowed them to keep their religious and cultural beliefs. Whereas most leaders considered it a sign of their power to change the culture of a conquered people and force them to adapt the beliefs of the leader and his own people, Cyrus believed this approach would only bring resistance. He let people keep their own cultural identities claiming that it was the way to avoid rebellion.

Not only did Cyrus unite the people of Medes with his own people, whereas other rulers might have kept them off to the side and perhaps even enslaved them as a humiliated and conquered people, but he also allowed them to keep their systems of living. “He kept the military and administrative systems of the Medes as well as retaining those who were in charge of them to keep their positions,” (Judge,138). By doing this he was upholding the strength of the empire by keeping strong leaders who were well-practiced in their positions, serving the same roles. He was also giving these people in high-powered positions, kind treatment and little reason to rebel.

In 547, Cyrus captured the kingdom of Lydia and gained access to the Mediterranean Sea and control of several Greek city-states. He now had a position to attack Greece if he so desired, but Cyrus was not so greedy as to attack just because he could. Instead of Greece, Cyrus looked toward Mesopotamia, and he conquered them without even a fight. Cyrus did this by finding the tribes who had trouble with the Chaldeans, who controlled Mesopotamia, and allying himself with these tribes (Judge,137). By the time he was ready to march into Mesopotamia, the Chaldeans saw the opposition that was headed in their direction, knew that they would not be treated poorly by Cyrus, and allowed themselves to be conquered.

A leader who could conquer powerful peoples without even a fight was truly great. Cyrus allowed people under his authority to live where they wanted. When he conquered an area, such as Babylon, he allowed the enslaved Jews who were living there to return to their homeland of Jerusalem. Cyrus even encouraged these people to rebuild their temple once they arrived in their land. He knew that he would reap the rewards of this through taxes that would flow into the Persian empire, but more importantly he would have the support and gratitude of the Jewish people.

When Cyrus died in 530 BC, he was replaced by his son, Cambyses and shortly after that by Darius. Cyrus had been a leader who “tried to win the trust of those he defeated. He ruled through persuasion and compromise,” (Judge,138).  Darius did not share the same approach. He quickly sought a conquest over the Indus River Valley in order to complete Persia’s rule over the great river civilizations, (all except for China). Darius was not a leader of the people and used authority and even spies to make sure that his rule was followed and went unquestioned.

Cyrus tried to make allies out of the people he conquered and welcomed them into his empire. Darius called the people he conquered “kings of the lie,” and punished them harshly, (Judge,141). He did not permit tolerance of religious and cultural beliefs in the manner that Cyrus had done before him.

Darius divided the empire into twenty provinces and called these provinces satrapies. The men he put in charge as governors of these areas were known as satraps. But Darius did not trust these men either, for most of them were not Persian, and so he had his own spies watch over the satraps in disguise and report back to him if anyone in the province seemed disloyal.

As Darius continued his reign, he began to change his approach to leadership, more in the favor of the techniques used by Cyrus. Darius built a royal road system where messages could be delivered throughout the provinces at great speed. This opened up communication and allowed Darius to see that his authoritative approach was no longer necessary. He now began to allow his messages to be spread by persuasion, rather than by force. Darius was beginning to learn that a benevolent ruler was one who would have the trust and support of his people.

Cyrus and Darius were both leaders who expanded the Persian Empire and were together responsible for the first polyglot multi-ethnic empire in history. Cyrus began with the land of Iran and then he and Darius continued to spread over the lands of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River Valley. Yet despite their similar conquests and incorporation of the new areas into the Persian Empire, Cyrus and Darius were very different rulers. Cyrus believed in showing benevolence to the conquered people and allowing them to keep their cultural ways. In this way, he was different from other rulers who came both before and after him. Darius began his rule as an authoritative figure, who did not show mercy to conquered peoples, but instead ruled through fear and the threat of punishment. Yet as Darius continued to rule over the Persian Empire and came upon new ideas that would allow him to also be considered “great,” such as the royal road system, he began to change his approach to leadership and became a more benevolent ruler, following in the footsteps of Cyrus.


1.Judge, Edward H., 2009, Connections, A World History, Volume One, to 1650, Vango Books, Pearson Education Inc, New Jersey