If ancient sources are true, the reign of Cambyses II (ruled 530-522 BCE) came to a peculiar end. It all happened in 522 BCE, when either Cambyses’ brother Bardiya (also known as Smerdis), or an imposter posing as Bardiya, successfully usurped power in Persia.
The story about the fake Bardiya (or the False Smerdis) can be traced back to an elaborate inscription on the Bīsitūn (or Behistun) rock, located in modern-day Iran. In this multiple-column inscription, Darius I “The Great” (r. 522-486 BCE) recorded how he came to rule Persia, as well as some of the exploits he accomplished during his reign.
Darius I gave a fairly sterile version of his ascension to power. His monument in Bīsitūn states that Cambyses II murdered his own brother, Bardiya, but that very few people in the Persian realm knew that the assassination had occurred. Seizing upon the lack of knowledge, a man named Gaumata, a magi or religious leader in Persia, impersonated the slain Bardiya and usurped power from Cambyses II in a coup. When this occurred, Darius claimed that Camyses II committed suicide, but other sources suggested he might have died in an accident. Nevertheless, Cambyses II was dead and Bardiya, or the impersonator, was in power.
It did not take long for plots to form—within the year a group of conspirators (including Darius) decided that the ruler of Persia was an imposter and needed to be removed. According to the Bīsitūn inscription, Darius and his accomplices killed the impostor, and then crowned Darius as the Great King of Persia.
Later sources, such as Herodotus and Ctesias, recorded (or fabricated) more detail about the impersonator and the conspiracy that put the throne into Darius’ hands. According to Herodotus, a group of seven conspirators became convinced that Bardiya was an impostor after they heard that the man was missing his ears. On top of this, members of the conspiracy already had prior knowledge about the death of the original Bardiya. With this information, the conspirators enacted their plot and assassinated Gaumata, the imposter.
According to Herodotus, once the imposter was killed, the conspirators supposedly all gathered to debate the political future of Persia. One spoke in favor of a popular government, another proposed an oligarchy, but Darius won the day with a plea for the traditional system of monarchy. When they agreed that Persia would remain a monarchal government, the conspirators reportedly decided to appoint their next monarch by means of a simple game of chance—they would all ride horses to a pre-designated spot and the crown would be given to whichever man’s horse neighed first after dawn had arrived.
Curiously, Herodotus and other later sources claimed that Darius cheated to ensure his horse neighed first. Fair warning, the stories about how he cheated are a bit odd. Herodotus gave two different accounts about how Darius increased his chances of becoming king. In both, a handler named Oebares played a prominent role.
In the first story, Oebares snuck out during the night and tied up a mare at the spot where the conspirators would hold their contest. The handler then brought Darius’s stallion out to the spot, circled him around the mare, and then let the anxious beasts mate. After the deed was done, Oebares returned the horses to their stables and waited for the contest to begin. When, as dawn was approaching, the conspirators all began to line up for their contest, Darius’ stallion immediately neighed, remembering the spot and the mare that had been there not long before.
The second story is just as strange as the first. In this account, Oebares had the same idea, but carried the plan out in a different way. In this version of the story, Oebares thoroughly coated his hand with the smell of a mare’s genitalia—you can use your own imagination to try to piece together the specifics. With his hand thickly coated with unmistakable odors and pheromones, Oebares attended the contest. Once the competition began, Oebares simply raised his hand toward the nostrils of Darius’ stallion, causing the horse to be the first to neigh.
Historians will likely never know for certain if any such contest took place, just as they remain uncertain as to whether Bardiya was a legitimate king or truly an imposter from the ranks of the magi. All we do know is that Darius I went on to be considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Persia.
Written by C. Keith Hansely.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).