Gaumata or False Smerdis or Sphendadates (and various other names and aliases) appears in epigraphical and historiographical sources of classical antiquity as a late-6th century BCE Mede who usurped the Achaemenid throne by impersonating a member of the ruling dynasty. The figure appears as 'Gaumata' in the Behistun inscription of Darius I, as '(false) Smerdis' in Herodotus' Histories, and as 'Sphendadates' in the surviving fragments of Ctesias. Gaumata/Sphendadates/Pseudo-Smerdis appears to have reigned for about one year (522 to 521 BCE) at the Achaemenid capital at Susa (Ctesias says seven months).
While the primary sources do not agree on the names and many other details, all three portray Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates as an imposter who usurped the throne by posing as one of the sons of Cyrus (II), i.e. as one of the brothers of Cambyses. The sources also agree that Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates is overthrown by Darius and others in a coup d'état, and that Darius then ascends the throne. Most sources (including Darius himself, Herodotus and Ctesias) have Darius as part of a group of seven conspirators. In Greek and Latin sources, Darius subsequently gains kingship by cheating in a contest.
In Darius' trilingual Behistun inscription, the prince being impersonated is named 'Pirtiya' in Elamite, 'Bardiya' in Old Persian, and 'Barziya' in Akkadian. In the Histories, the prince and his imposter have the same name (Smerdis). For Ctesias, Sphendadates poses as 'Tanyoxarces'. Other Greek sources have various other names for the figure being impersonated, including 'Tanoxares', 'Mergis' and 'Mardos'.:98
The evaluation of the primary sources has been cause for much disagreement in modern scholarship. While there is agreement that Darius seized the throne through a coup d'état, there is dissent over whether Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates was in fact an imposter, or whether Darius merely made him out to be one. The key argument against a fabrication is that there is no evidence for it. The key argument for a fabrication is that Darius, who had no particular rights to the throne, needed a moral Other to justify his seizure of the throne, and if one didn't exist, he would have had to invent one.
In the primary sources
In Darius' Behistun inscription
The story of Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates appears in Darius' own Behistun inscription (c. 519 BCE), a summary of the relevant portion of which (DB I.1.55-1.61, I.10-14) is as follows: King Cambyses, a son of Cyrus, had a full-brother, Bardiya.[n 1] Cambyses had Bardiya killed, and succeeded in keeping that a secret from the people (I.10). While Cambyses was away in Egypt, rebellions developed in Persia and in Media and in other provinces. A maguish[n 2] by the name of Gaumata began to proclaim himself as Bardiya, and seized the kingship in all the rebellious territory (I.11-I.12). Cambyses, still in Egypt, committed suicide (I.11). Out of fear of retribution from Gaumata, the people remained quiet. Then Darius, knowing that Gaumata was not the real Bardiya, with the aid of a few men[n 3] and with the divine support of Ahura Mazda, fought with and killed Gaumata and his foremost followers at the fortress of Sikayuvatish in Media (I.13). Darius then became king (I.13).
A section of the Behistun inscription of a later date has another rebel, a certain Vahyazdata, also claiming to be Bardiya (DB 3.21-3.28).
In Herodotus' Histories
A longer version of the story appears in Book 3 of Herodotus' Histories, written c. 450 BCE. That story there (3.1-38, 3.61-88) is as follows: While in Egypt, Cambyses accidentally wounds the thigh of the sacred bull worshipped as the god Apis, and when the sacred bull dies from the wound, Cambyses loses his sanity (3.27-3.29). Jealous of his brother Smerdis' skill with a particular bow brought from the king of Ethiopia, Cambyses sends Smerdis back to Persis. Cambyses then has a dream in which Smerdis would supplant him, so he sends a henchman to murder him secretly (3.30). The assassination succeeds, and can be kept a secret. One of the few that know of Smerdis' death is Patizeithes, the steward of Cambyses' palace at Susa. That steward has a brother who greatly resembles Smerdis in appearance, and whose name is also Smerdis (3.61.1). The steward then puts his brother on the throne, and has him pretend that he is the brother of Cambyses. The false Smerdis succeeds in the deception by not allowing anyone who knew the real Smerdis into his presence (3.61). Still in Egypt, Cambyses learns of the false Smerdis, and knowing that the real Smerdis is dead, recognizes the deception. Cambyses then readies his army to return to Susa, but while mounting his horse accidentally injures his thigh from the point of his sword. Cambyses dies from the wound a few days later (3.63-3.66). On his death bed, Cambyses perceives Smerdis as favouring a return to Median hegemony (3.65). The false Smerdis then continues to rule at Susa for some time, and gains support from everyone except the Persians when he grants a three-year military draft and tax exemption to the various peoples of the empire (3.67). Meanwhile, Otanes, a nobleman of Persis, suspects that the king is not the brother of Cambyses, but rather the Smerdis whose ears Cyrus had commanded be cut off "for some grave reason" (3.69.6). To confirm his suspicion, Otanes asks his daughter Phaidyme – who is a member of the harem and thus has access to the king – to check whether the man has ears. Phaidyme does as asked, and one night while the king is asleep, confirms that the king does not in fact have ears. His suspicions confirmed, Otanes then gathers six noblemen and plots to get rid of the false Smerdis. A seventh nobleman, Darius, arrives at the capital shortly thereafter, and is then included in the group. The seven conspirators charge into the chambers of the king, and while five deal with the guards, Darius and Megabyzus kill the false Smerdis and a companion. Five days later, after the tumult has died down, the seven meet again to discuss a suitable form of government (3.80–82). After some discussion over the merits of democracy (proposed by Otanes) and oligarchy (proposed by Megabyzus) and monarchy (proposed by Darius), four of the seven vote in favour of a monarchy. They then decide to hold a contest whereby whichever of them got his horse to neigh first after sunrise shall become king. Darius cheats and ascends the throne (3.84-3.87).
In Ctesias' Persika
Ctesias' version (c. 400 BCE) runs as follows (XI/F9.8 and XII/F13.11-17, via Photius Bibl. 72): King Cyrus, as he lay dying, appointed his elder son Cambyses to the throne, and appointed his younger son Tanyoxarces governor of the provinces of Bactria, Chorasmia, Parthia, and Carmania. Shortly after Cambyses ascends the throne, a certain Sphendadates who had been whipped by Tanyoxarces for some offense, informs Cambyses that his brother is plotting against him. As proof of this he declares that Tanyoxarces would refuse to come if summoned. When Tanyoxarces does not immediately accede to the summons, Cambyses begins to believe Sphendadates, who then begins to slander Tanyoxarces more freely. By the time Tanyoxarces finally arrives, Cambyses is determined to put him to death, but hesitates. Sphendadates suggests that, since he (Sphendadates) looks very much like Tanyoxarces, he could take the prince's place. Cambyses agrees, and Tanyoxarces is killed by being forced to drink bull's blood. Sphendadates then takes the place as governor of the eastern provinces. Five years later, while in Babylon, Cambyses accidentally wounds himself in the thigh, and dies eleven days later. Upon hearing of Cambyses death, Sphendadates alias Tanyoxarces returns to the capital and succeeds Cambyses. Meanwhile, Izabates, a confidant of Cambyses who knew of the killing of Tanyoxarces, is on his way with the body of Cambyses. Upon arriving at the capital and finding Sphendadates on the throne, Izabates exposes the fraud. Then, seven noblemen (among them Darius) conspire against Sphendadates. The seven are admitted to the palace by a co-conspirator, where Sphendadates is then killed. The seven then decide to hold a contest whereby whichever of them got his horse to neigh first after sunrise shall become king. Darius gets his horse to be the first to neigh (F13.17: "the result of a cunning stratagem") and he ascends the throne.
This story was immensely popular in antiquity and later in Hellenistic times, and many versions of the tale circulated around the rim of the western Mediterranean.
The evaluation of the sources has been cause for much disagreement in modern scholarship. While there is agreement that Darius seized the throne through a coup d'état, there is dissent over whether Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates was in fact an imposter, or whether Darius merely made him out to be an imposter in order to justify his seizure of the throne. The key argument against a fabrication is that there is no evidence for it, and lacking further discoveries that view "must remain hypothetical." The idea that Gaumata/Pseudo-Smerdis/Sphendadates was a fabrication is nonetheless appealing because "it was vital for a man like Darius, who had no particular rights to the throne, to invent a character (Gaumāta) condemned for his acts against gods and men."
In pop culture
A figure named Gaumata plays a minor role in the video game Age of Empires Online. One of the first quests for players of the Persian Civilization is to kill him on Darius' orders (though the event is portrayed as a conventional battle rather than an assassination). His supporters are fought in several other quests.
"The imposter magician Smerdis" is a figure in Jorge Luis Borges' short story by, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. He is the only historical character that the protagonist is able to recognize when discovering the article on the fictitious nation of Uqbar, and his name is invoked mainly as a metaphor.
- In the English language translation of DB I, Kent substitutes 'Smerdis' for OP 'Bardiya'.
- magu.iš/.m is a hapax in Old Persian, and the meaning is uncertain. As also the magoš in Ctesias and in Histories 3 (but not necessarily elsewhere in Herodotus, or in Greek or Latin generally), in the context of the story of Darius' seizure of the throne, the word is usually treated as an ethnonym of the Mede tribe of that name; see Kent 1950, p. 54. All sources, whether Old Persian, Elamite, Greek or Latin, identify the usurper as a Median.
- In a part of the inscription of an earlier date, Darius takes sole credit for overthrowing Gaumata (DB I.12-13), but in a part of the inscription composed at a later date Darius gives credit to his six co-conspirators by name.
- Briant, Pierre (2002), From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, Eisenbrauns.
- Kent, Roland G., ed., tr. (1950), Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, New Haven: American Oriental Society, pp. 119–120, 159–160.
- Herodotus; Godley, A. D., tr. (1931), Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley, London: Heinemann.
- Ctesias; Nicols, Andrew, ed., tr. (2008), The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus, University of Florida (PhD thesis), pp. 25, 90, 92–93.
- Ctesias; Stronk, Jan P., tr. (2010), Ctesias' Persian History: Introduction, text, and translation, Wellem, pp. 323–325.
- Olmstead, A. T. (1959), History of the Persian Empire, University of Chicago Press.
- Axworthy, Michael (2008), Iran: Empire of the Mind, New York: Basic Books.
- Van De Mieroop, Marc (2006), A History of the Ancient Near East (2nd ed.), Blackwell.
- Dandamayev, M. A. (1988), "Bardiya", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 3, fasc. 8, Costa Mesa: Mazda, pp. 785–786.
- Briant, Pierre (2000), "Gaumāta", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. X, fasc. 3, New York: Routledge, Kegan Paul, pp. 333–335.