Did a “Magus” really impersonate the Persian king?

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A Brief History

On September 29, 522 B.C., following two years of bizarre and bloody political intrigue, King Darius I the Great of Persia killed a Magian (think of the magi or wise men of the Bible) usurper, thereby securing Darius’s hold as great king of the Persian Empire.

Digging Deeper

Most westerners know of Darius as one of the two Persian monarchs who attempted and failed to conquer Greece.  Darius’s forces were those who suffered the iconic defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.  Yet, this invasion happened over thirty years into Darius’s reign and just four years before his death.  As such, the Greco-Persian Wars occurred only in the final third of the great king’s reign.  Much of his long and storied career is rarely remembered today.  Prior to his foray into Greece, he had expanded the Persian Empire to become the largest empire the ancient world would see (yes, even geographically larger than the Roman Empire).

The Achaemenid Empire at its greatest territorial extent, under the rule of Darius I (522 BC to 486 BC)

Of course how exactly Darius came to the throne to undertake such imperial expansion has been the subject of much mystery and debate over the past 2500 years.

Over the course of these past centuries, historians have divided into two camps over whether or not Darius legitimately came to the throne or if he was something of a usurper.  According to the traditional story, the first camp, which draws upon most ancient sources, around the time of the death of then Great King Cambyses, a Magus named Gaumata took over the throne.  According to this version of the story, Cambyses dreamt of his brother, Bardiya, being a potential rival to his throne and so Cambyses had Bardiya assassinated.  BUT Cambyses kept the murder a secret.  This blunder allowed Gaumata to seize the opportunity to impersonate Bardiya as the new great king of Persia with no one being any the wiser, and yes, that apparently included even the wife and women of Bardiya’s harem…

From there, the traditional story gets even more akin to something on a cable TV drama series.  Eventually, a Persian noble named Otanes suspected Gaumata was indeed an imposter.  Otanes revealed his suspicions to his daughter Phaidime, who was married to Bardiya.  Because Otanes knew that the magus known as Gaumata had earlier had his ears severed by Cyrus the Great, Otanes told his daughter to feel for the magus’s ears as they slept together.   Apparently not having noticed this physical difference earlier on her own accord, she did as her father instructed.  To what must have been her surprise, that’s right, she found no ears, thereby confirming Otanes’s suspicions.  After Otanes’s daughter informed her father of her discovery, Otanes along with six others, including Darius, surprised Gaumata at a castle, where the seven conspirators stabbed the false king to death on September 29, 522 B.C.

Gaumata under Darius I’s boot engraved at Behistun Inscription in Kermanshah.

Out of the seven, it fell upon Darius to become the new ruler.  To legitimize his new throne, he subsequently married Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus the Great (Persia’s first great king) and a sister of Cambyses.  Atossa would go on to bear Darius’s son and successor Xerxes of 300 fame.

The problem with the above story is that it is not only entertaining (if you like political blood and guts types of intrigues!), but it really seems to work in the favor of Darius, the ultimate winner of the whole mess, perhaps a little too well.  Thus, multiple revisionist historians have taken a different stance on the whole incident claiming that Gaumata was in fact Bardiya, the legitimate heir to Cambyses, and Darius fabricated the story to legitimize his own coup.  Such scholars point to how if Darius’s version is correct, it means that even Bardiya’s own wife believed Gaumata to be her husband until her father had to convince her otherwise.

So, which account seems most credible to you?  The original sources, i.e. those closest to the event would have us believe that after a prophetic dream, one king had his brother killed thereby allowing a magus to seize power, duping the dead heir’s wife and various others, until a group of nobles slew him and then redeemed their nation’s monarchy by having one of the usurper’s murderers marry into the legitimate royal family.  Or do you instead agree with modern revisionists who instead argue that Darius simply killed the actual brother of Cambyses and made up a nice story to legitimize his actions?  Yet, even if the modern account sounds more credible, keep in mind, no ancient sources necessarily tell that story.  In any event, please let us know what you believe in the comments below this article!

Historical Evidence

The oldest source on the matter is the Behistun Inscription from Darius’s reign, which provides Darius’s take on how he came to power.  The inscription also includes an image of Gaumata under Darius’s foot!

The famous Greek historian Herodotus writing in the century following this events and known simultaneously as “the Father of History” and “the Father of Lies” also recounts the story.

For an excellent scholarly account of the history of the ancient Persian Empire, see Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Eisenbrauns, 2002).

For more information, please see…

Abbott, Jacob.  Darius the Great: Makers of History.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

Poolos, J. and Arthur Meier Schlesinger.  Darius the Great (Ancient World Leaders).  Chelsea House Pub, 2008.

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.