What does the rise of the Persian Empire 2000 years ago have to do with fake news? In fact, the crowning of Darius the Great, a true king of kings, may be history’s first example of a fake news campaign.
When the first ruler of the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire, Cyrus the Great, died, his eldest son, Cambyses, took the reins of power. The younger son, Bardia, was awarded his own territory so he wouldn’t feel the urge to challenge the succession. Things appeared to be going well for the young empire, but there was a force working behind the scenes.
After beginning his rein, Cambyses, perhaps because of the alcoholic madness he was said to be suffering, made a series of huge mistakes. He lost a 50,000-man army in the desert, he angered the Egyptians by slaughtering their prized bull (who was seen as a godly avatar), and then even worse, he was accused of killing his own brother, Bardia, and of replacing him with an imposter, the infamous magician, Guamata, and of not telling anyone.
One of Cambyses’ “loyal” guards, also a man of very noble blood, took a team of assassins to remove the imposter. The guard fought the magician’s evil spells and went on to kill all those who had not raised the alarm about this magical double. All who declared that Bardia was the genuine article were conspirators and thus punished harshly.
Darius the Great
There’s only one problem with this story. It’s likely all fake news.
Cambyses’ drinking was almost certainly exaggerated, the loss of a huge army has never been proven, and other records (not those produced by the Darius the Great) suggest that the bull was never killed. And as for the idea that Cambyses had slain his brother and replaced him with a lookalike magician …
You see, for Cambyses to murder his brother was not a crime; he was the undisputed ruler, and all lived or died by his word. But the fact that he told no one of the murder was akin to him telling a lie – and this, in the Persian Empire, was a grave crime against society.
This edict against lying was so ingrained in the culture that even marketplaces were not used as sellers would lie in the name of trade. As Herodotus writes:
“Buying and selling in a marketplace is a custom unknown to the Persians, who never make purchases in open marts, and indeed have not in their whole country a single marketplace.”
So the news that Cambyses had covered up his brother’s murder was more important than the act of killing itself. It made him unworthy of being the ruler.
From Darius to Today…
Darius had created a network of lies to not only remove Cambyses from power but also to kill Bardia, who was next in line to the throne. He assumed power to right the ship and to stop illegitimate rulers from driving the empire into chaos. It was a perfectly executed plan based on lies and intrigues.
Fake news has been a weapon of political warfare used for millennia. It is just as strong today as in the days of Darius and Cambyses.
After 2,000 years, we finally see that Darius used social convention and falsehoods to steal power that was not rightly his. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 2,000 years before we realize the same plots and intrigues are happening right here, right now.