Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 3 The Magi And The Rise Of Darius Summary

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Histories | Book 3, The Magi and the Rise of Darius | Summary



The magi, a class of priests, revolt against Cambyses. They plot to place a false version of the slain brother of Cambyses, Smerdis, on the throne. The magi take control of Persia while Cambyses is in Egypt. Cambyses is understandably furious, but he wounds himself while trying to mount his horse in haste. His own sword cuts him in the same place he had cut the Apis bull. The wound festers, and Cambyses dies.

The false Smerdis, meanwhile, comes under the suspicion of one of the wealthiest Persians, Otanes. Otanes notices the imposter never appears in private audiences with the people who know him best. He devises a ruse whereby he asks one of Smerdis's wives (formerly Cambyses's wives) to feel the sides of Smerdis's head while he sleeps to see if he has ears. This is because the false Smerdis had his ears removed by Cyrus as punishment. The woman checks, and sure enough, Smerdis has no ears. Otanes and six other conspirators pledge to defeat the magi and reveal their treachery. Among the seven conspirators is Darius, the son of a provincial governor. Darius is an ambitious and passionate man.

The conspirators fight their way into the palace and kill the magi. Unsure what to do next, the conspirators decide to hold a debate to decide what system of government to adopt. Otanes wishes to establish a popular—democratic—government. Another man, Megabazus, argues for oligarchy—rule by a privileged few. Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. The others ultimately agree with Darius, who points out it was a monarch, Cyrus, who freed the Persians from the Medes. They then have to decide who will become monarch. They decide that he whose horse neighs the soonest after sunrise will become king. Darius uses a trick to ensure his horse is the first to neigh, and he becomes king.

Darius reorganizes the empire he has won into 20 satrapies (provinces), which Herodotus lists. India is one of these provinces, and Herodotus describes the process by which he believes the Indians acquire gold: through the labor of huge, fox-sized ants.


The story of Darius I's (550–486 BCE) rise to power seems to have more in common with a theatrical tragedy than with a record of real events. But he was not Cambyses's son or heir, and a power struggle over the succession appears to have really occurred. The magi were a priestly class in Persian society. The details of their conspiracy are very fanciful. That they could have gotten away with an impostor who had no ears (a ruse that is defeated simply by having someone check) makes this episode hard for a modern reader to consider credible. An audience at the time, however, whose main historical diet was plays and epics, might have found it both delightful and accurate. Herodotus strives for accuracy, but above all he is trying to tell a good story.

Herodotus uses the occasion of the debate about government to consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of political systems as he saw them. He favored democracy, as practiced in the Greek city-state of Athens. Darius's desire for monarchy offers a dramatic foreshadowing of what sort of character he will prove to be. The trick he uses to win the election is another sign that he is both clever and unscrupulous. Herodotus may be suggesting that men like Darius are precisely the reason why tyranny is a bad idea.

Herodotus's account of the Persian provinces is detailed, and it shows that he had access to Persian sources on the matter. Even by this point in the work, the breadth and extent of his knowledge are very impressive. On the other hand, it is also full of completely fanciful details, like the tale of the Indians' massive, gold-farming ants. The person who told Herodotus this may have been having a joke at his expense, or Herodotus may have misunderstood. It is instructive that such a detail about India, still mysterious to the Greeks of Herodotus's time, was believed.

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