The series of Alexander Essays is taken courtesy of a course taught by Professor Waldemar Heckel at the University of Calgary. The list of topics may be found here
Evaluate Darius III as a political and military leader. Is he rightly depicted as cowardly and incompetent?
I feel obliged to preface this essay with a warning about expertise; I am not an expert on Ancient Persia. I do not know the customs well, nor am I as familiar with the political system as I should be. I am somewhat of a Greek history buff, although I stop short of expert, and am intimately familiar with the reign of Darios III through the Greek and Macedonian point of view, with the image of an incompetent, cowardly leader who tries to surrender half of his empire and twice allows his forces to be slaughtered as he flees to protect his royal hide. Then again, in battle the defeated had two options: give in and die in battle or flee and attempt to salvage a semblance of victory from the ruins o. The following is entirely generated from this knowledge, only afterward corroborated and edited with a review of Wikipedia.
Darios himself was only tenuously related to Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty; one of hte reasons for the Persian weakness when Alexander invaded was that Darios had just securted the throne from the usurper Bagoas, and re-centralized the state after a series of local rebellions, including one in Egypt. Just when stability seemed neigh, the Macedonian invasion began.
In the histories and biographies Darios appears as a character four times: the Battle of Issus, in a letter to sue for peace, at the Battle of Gaugamela and in a death scene after Bessos stabbed him. In each of these appearances he appears a failure, especially in contrast to the daring of Alexander.
Greek kings and generals fought with their soldiers, often on the front lines and when the troops broke and ran, it was often a given that the commander had fallen. This was the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes at Thermopylae as much as it was between Alexander and Darios. Persian aristocracy and the royal family risked themselves, but the Great King was something entirely; instead of fighting on the front, he was to lead the entire heterogenous force. Thus at both Issos and Gaugamela, Darios did not fight. Further, Darios did not stay to rally (i.e. die with) his troops. On one hand this is the mark of a coward, but on the other he had responsibilities to more than ust those soldiers on the field.
Upon close inspection, life would have been simpler for Darios to die or flee into ignomity, but he did not. The reason for flight became apparent ad Darios raised a second force; no doubt he would have done so, or attempted to do so again after Gaugamela if given the chance. This is the mark of a fighter.
In the letter sent to Alexander, Darios played a shrewd card in that many of Alexander’s men prefered to stop, too, so Darios sought to “grant” Alexander those territories he had already won, which also happened to be those most unruly provinces. While this would be an enormous hit to the Persian prestige, the empire and all of the Capitols would remain intact.
Lastly we have an account of Darios’ death. This often is used to portray a failed and defeated King, which it does, but also implies incompetence. Darios had been defeated, but this does not imply that he had made huge mistakes or that the betrayal of Bessos was anything more than a play to curry favor from the new victor–or a power play of his own. Behind the scenes Darios had funded a Spartan insurrection and launched his own counter in Memnon of Rhodes, an officer who had out-maneuvered Parmenion in the last years of Philip’s reign. The persistence of Alexander, the death of Memnon and the betrayal of Bessos were all beyond the control of Darios. That he played the game and lost does not preclude his incompetence, merely his unluck and that Alexander outdid him.