After Him! Persians in Italy?: Democedes of Croton and Darius I

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In a previous blog entry, we looked at the story of Oroetes, the rebellious Lydian satrap of the Persian Empire in the 520s BC. In the course of the story of the satrap’s dealings with Polycrates of Samos, mention was made of a certain “Democedes, son of Calliphon, a man of Croton and the most skilful physician of his time,” (Herodotus III.125.1) whose reputation saw Croton considered the home of many a great physician (Herodotus III.131.2-3).

This mention might seem fleeting, perhaps merely deployed by Herodotus to demonstrate the influence of Polycrates in being able to bring such highly skilled individuals to his court. However, showing his abilities as a story-teller, Herodotus weaves the stories of Polycrates, Oroetes and Democedes into something of an over-arching narrative involving the initial contacts between the Persians and Greeks.

Democedes was born in the Greek colonial city of Croton in what would be considered the ‘ball of the Italian foot’ (Herodotus III.131.1). Having come into conflict with his father, Democedes left his home city and travelled to the Greek island of Aegina, where he quickly established an increasingly formidable reputation as a physician, despite not having access to many of the ‘cutting edge’ medical equipment of the age.

Herodotus III.131.2 highlights the growth in Democedes’ reputation as a doctor through how his fee increased over the space of just a few years. By the time of his second year in Aegina, he was being paid a talent by the Aeginetan government; the following year, the Athenians were giving him 100 pounds of silver, before in his fourth year away from Croton, Polycrates of Samos employed his medical services for two talents. Such was his reputation that Democedes not only commanded a huge fee to travel to the court of Polycrates, he also joined the inner circle and retinue of the tyrant.

Due to this lofty position, he found himself as part of Polycrates’ entourage for the tyrant’s ill-advised and ill-prophesised journey to Magnesia to meet the Lydian satrap, Oroetes. After seeing to the murder and crucifixion of Polycrates, Oroetes allowed all of the Samians in the tyrant’s entourage to return to Samos. However, those non-Samians were taken as prisoners and made slaves of the Persian state: this included Democedes of Croton.

Polycrates of Samos and Oroetes

Following the subsequent revolt and then assassination of Oroetes by Bagaeus on the order of Darius I, along with the other slaves and confiscated wealth of Polycrates, Democedes was shipped off to the Persian capital at Susa as spoils of the successful removals of the troublesome tyrant and satrap.

The now enslaved physician arrived in the dungeon of Susa to find the Persian king virtually crippled from a hunting accident. Leaping down from his horse, Darius landed badly to break or dislocate his ankle. The Egyptian doctors Darius had surrounded himself with only seemed to exacerbate the pain the king felt – “wrenching and forcing the foot made the evil continually greater” (Herodotus III.129.2.). Darius had faced a full week of sleepless nights before being informed by a member of his court of the presence of a skilled physician in the ranks of the slaves who had just arrived from Sardis.

Desperate for any remedy, the king had Democedes brought into his presence. His enslavement and the journey from Sardis to Susa had not been kind to the Croton doctor as he cut something of a wretched figure as he shambled into the Persian court “dragging fetters after him and clothed in rags” (Herodotus III.129.3).

Darius proceeded to enquire of this chained slave as to his medical proficiency, only for Democedes to deny his expertise because he felt that doing so would mean he would never be allowed to return home (Herodotus III.130.1). Unfortunately for Democedes, it seems that lying was not one of his more prominent skills, as Darius thought that Democedes was indeed hiding his abilities from him. The Persian king therefore ordered the doctor to be tortured in order to get to the truth.

Darius I

Faced with this threat, Democedes admitted to having an understanding of medicine, although not a complete one, gaining his knowledge from a friend of another physician rather than through an education (Herodotus III.130.2). This still somewhat modest admittance saw Darius charge Democedes with fixing his injured foot, or to at least relieve him of the on-going pain, which was now such that the king may have felt that he would never regain full use of his foot.

The Croton doctor therefore set about applying his Greek techniques and medicines, which were less violent than the “wrenching and forcing” of the Egyptians. These drugs relieved enough of the pain for Darius to get some sleep. This in turn, along with perhaps some medically-induced reduction of swelling, may have aided the king’s recovery, for not long later, he was “perfectly well” (Herodotus III.130.3).

Such a miraculous healing saw Darius reward Democedes greatly, presenting the physician with two sets of golden fetters. A generous gift in terms of material value, but at the same time these may have presented a not-so-subtle message – Democedes was still the prisoner of the Persian king. Perhaps emboldened by the lack of subtlety in this gift, Democedes asked Darius “whether it was by design that he had given to him a double share of his suffering, because he had made him well” (Herodotus III.130.4). Rather than be annoyed by this bold retort, Darius was pleased by it and decided to further reward his new court physician.

Persian Daric coin

The king sent Democedes to meet his numerous wives, who when informed by the harem eunuchs that this was the doctor who had given the King of Kings his life back, the royal wives showered him with gold. Each dipped a cup into a chest of gold coins, presenting the contents to Democedes. Such was the amount he received that it was said that his servant, a certain Skiton, who followed behind him and was allowed to keep any coins that Democedes dropped from his new-found fortune, himself became a rich man (Herodotus III.130.4-5).

Democedes also set about making himself popular with other members of the Persian court. He intervened with Darius regarding the king’s determination to have the Egyptian doctors impaled for their failure in healing him (Herodotus III.131.2). Might it be that Democedes recognised that the “wrenching and forcing” that the Egyptians had undertaken might actually have relocated the ankle joint, so that their only issue was being unable to provide Darius with any pain relief? Democedes also pointed out a certain Eleian prophet who had gone unnoticed amongst the Greek slaves brought to Susa, via Sardis, from Samos.

Such was the favour that Democedes enjoyed at the Persian court that he found himself living in a large house in Susa and becoming a frequent table-companion of Darius (the king surely wanted his new doctor on hand should he require medical attention). It would seem that the doctor of Croton had everything… except his freedom to return home… (Herodotus III.132.1).

As well as Darius, the Egyptian doctors and the unnamed Eleian prophet, Democedes also earned the good graces of Atossa, primary wife of Darius and daughter of Cyrus the Great (she had also been sister-wife of Cambyses II).

The Persian queen sought out Democedes’ skills when she found a lump on her breast. This could be a case of mastitis brought on potentially by Atossa’s breastfeeding (might she have had a wet nurse?) of the future Persian king, Xerxes, who was born in c.518BC (although the date of this interaction is not definitively known). It could have been something more insidious, but the fact that Democedes was able to treat Atossa successfully (Herodotus III.134.1) might suggest that it was not.

In return for his help, Democedes extracted a promise from Atossa, the nature of which he did not immediately reveal, aside from assuring the queen that it would not be “shameful” (Herodotus III.133.2)… unless some level of manipulation of the Persian King of Kings is to be considered ‘shameful’.

After her recovery, Democedes cashed in on the promise by asking Atossa to goad Darius into some great military undertaking, appealing to his want for glory, conquest and security at home.

“O king, though thou hast such great power, thou dost sit still, and dost not win in addition any nation or power for the Persians: [2] and yet it is reasonable that a man who is both young and master of much wealth should be seen to perform some great deed, in order that the Persians may know surely that he is a man by whom they are ruled. It is expedient indeed in two ways that thou shouldest do so, both in order that the Persians may know that their ruler is a man, and in order that they may be worn down by war and not have leisure to plot against thee. [3] For now thou mightest display some great deed, while thou art still young; seeing that as the body grows the spirit grows old also with it, and is blunted for every kind of action.”

Herodotus III.134.1-3

Darius responded to this plea for glory by telling Atossa that he already had such a glorious campaign in the works – he was going to have a bridge of boats built across the Bosphorus, march into Europe and strike at the Scythians beyond the Danube (Herodotus III.134.1), an expedition that Darius did undertake with limited success in c.513BC.

This was not enough for Atossa. The queen pleaded with Darius to look for a more glorious conquest than the Scythians (even though her father, Cyrus the Great, had died fighting some of their number in Transoxiana). Why not invade Greece to furnish her with Spartan, Argive, Athenian and Corinthian attendants? She then suggests that the King of Kings already has a certain someone at his disposal who would provide extremely useful information about Greece – a certain Democedes of Croton.

Rather than jump at the opportunity for a fully-fledged invasion of Greece, Darius decided to send a reconnaissance mission with Democedes in order to find out useful information about the Greek world. He was also wary of the Crotonian doctor for when he summoned his 15 Persian spies, Darius warned them to keep an eye on Democedes – “take care not to let Demokedes escape from them, but bring him back at all costs” (Herodotus III.135.1).

The King then had Democedes come before him, asking the physician to guide his Persians across Greece and then return. Darius even tried to sweeten the deal by allowing Democedes to take many of the riches he had attained in Susa back home with him to give to his family. His reward for doing so and then returning east would be even greater riches than he had already attained and a royal contribution to the gifts to be given to Democedes’ family (Herodotus III.135.2)

While Herodotus felt that Darius was being earnest in his promises to Democedes, the physician thought that the Persian king was testing him in some way. He therefore decided to leave a lot of his belongings in Susa so that he would have them when he returned. He would only accept the merchant ship as a gift for his brothers from Darius. Perhaps in leaving his riches behind, Democedes thought that Darius would trust him more and/or not feel like the physician had robbed him should he not return east.

From Susa, Democedes and his escort/spies travelled to Phoenicia. At Sidon, they took up three ships – two triremes and a cargo ship filled “with all manner of goods” (Herodotus III.136.1) – and headed for Greece. Unfortunately, because Herodotus was either focused solely on telling the story of Democedes or was himself suffering from a lack of information, the journey of this small Persian fleet is recorded in only one brief but intriguing sentence: “touching at various places they saw the coast regions of it and wrote down a description, until at last, when they had seen the greater number of the famous places, they came to Taras in Italy” (Herodotus III.136.1).

It would be interesting to know where these Persian escorts/spies might have seen in Greece. What were to be considered the “famous places” in Greece in the late sixth century BC? Of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ in Greek territory, only the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus had been built by this point, but there were plenty of other things to see in Greece that might intrigue the Persian king, such as populations and trade to dominate and tax.

It might be thought that a group of inquisitive rather than acquisitive Persians would have raised suspicions amongst the various Greek populations they were bound to have come into contact with, even with a Crotonian Greek guiding them.

It may even be that it was this suspicion that Democedes hoped to take advantage of when he led the Persian ships to Megale Hellas­ – the part of southern Italy heavily colonised by Greeks, which just so happened to be where the city of Croton was situated…

Tarentine coin

Arriving in Taras/Tarentum, Democedes made some sort of appeal to Aristophilides, king of the Tarentines. Exactly how he managed this under the no doubt watchful eyes of his Persian companions is not recorded. Perhaps the physician was merely as blunt as accusing the Persians of being spies when they were in the presence of Aristophilides. Whatever the circumstances, the Tarentine ruler ordered the seizure and immobilising of the Persian vessels and the imprisonment of its crew on charges of spying (Herodotus III.136.2).

This imprisonment did not last long and when the Persians found themselves free and back about their ships, they discovered that Democedes had used their period of capture as an opportunity to escape back to Croton. Likely remembering the orders of Darius and possibly a little angry themselves, rather than return east, the Persian spies set sail for Croton, determined to recapture their ‘tour guide’.

Krotonian Stater, Getty Museum

Arriving in Croton, the Persians found Democedes in the marketplace and set about recapturing him, only for several Crotonians to come to his rescue. However, recognising that not all of the locals had stepped in, the Persian envoys/spies doubled down on the notion that it was fear of the Persian king that prevented all of Croton from protecting Democedes.


“Men of Croton, take care what ye are about: ye are rescuing a man who was a slave of king Darius and who ran away from him. [3] How, think you, will king Darius be content to receive such an insult; and how shall this which ye do be well for you, if ye take him away from us? Against what city, think you, shall we make expedition sooner than against this, and what city before this shall we endeavour to reduce to slavery?”

Herodotus III.137.2-3

This threat did not dissuade the Crotonians from their protection of Democedes – had many Crotonians even heard of the Persian Empire, let alone realise that southern Italy was out of Darius’ reach? – and the intercession of Aristophilides in Tarentum seems to have deprived the Persians of their ship full of valuables with which they might have been able to bribe the Crotonians into handing over Democedes.

Milo of Croton by Joseph-Benoit Suvée

With their gambit having failed, the Persian spies had little recourse but to return home to Persia without visiting any more of Hellas. Before they departed, Democedes undertook one final gambit which may have saved the lives of himself and the departing envoys. He told them to inform Darius that he had become betrothed to the daughter of Milo of Croton, a famed six-time Olympic wrestling champion, who was held in high regard at the Persian court. Such a marriage to a favourite athlete of his might had satiated some of Darius’ anger.

However, the Persian spies were greatly hindered in bringing this message to Darius by the weather, which saw them shipwrecked and then enslaved in Apulia. There, they may well have remained had it not been for the interjection of another Tarentine, an exile by the name of Gillos. He freed the Persians and conveyed them back to the Persian court.

This is where Herodotus’ story of Democedes ends, as he does not return to him after his narrative switches to Gillos and his attempts to be restored to Tarentum with help from Knidos and through the patronage of Darius in return for facilitating the return of the Persian spies, an attempt that failed.

Herodotus does sum up this section of his history involving Polycrates of Samos, Oroetes, satrap of Lydia, Democedes of Croton and then Gillos of Taras as something of a connected story of how the Persians first came to be involved in Greece (Herodotus III.138.4), an involvement soon to expand to expeditions against specific Greek cities by the circumstances of the Ionian Revolt, leading first to the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and then the epic Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479BC.

However, while Democedes returning home to Croton cost him the vast fortune he had accrued in Susa, suggesting that it introduced the Persians to Greece and therefore bred thoughts of conquest seems more than a little reaching, even aetiological. Regardless of the words Democedes of Croton put in the mouth of Queen Atossa in order to facilitate his return home, the Persians were already almost certain to make some attempt at the conquest of Greece, having already planned and then executed a strike into Thrace and north to the Danube.

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